The last few months have made crystal clear what was increasingly evident anyway: that every category of primary risk to American security is growing.
In January, a Chinese vessel locked a radar fix on a Japanese ship. That’s equivalent to a sniper fixing a laser sight on the forehead of a prospective target. It was a deliberately provocative act, and it comes on the heels of actions by which the Chinese have made clear that they intend to pursue vigorously their claim to hegemony over the South China Sea and much of the East China Sea.
Last year, the Chinese took effective control of Scarborough Shoal — a coral reef that both China and the Philippines claim — by stationing ships nearby and blocking the entrance. From all appearances, they intend to keep the ships there permanently, presenting the Philippine government with the Hobson’s choice of starting a shooting war or accepting de facto Chinese control over the shoal.
China should not be viewed as an enemy of the United States. But the Chinese have national ambitions that, unless channeled into peaceful avenues, could substantially impair freedom of the seas and/or bring China into conflict with other nations which the United States is bound by treaty to defend.
In February, the North Koreans conducted yet another successful nuclear test and launched a three-stage rocket. The acts were so flagrant that even the United Nations condemned them, imposing a new round of sanctions on North Korea. The Kim regime reacted by threatening to turn Washington and Seoul into a “sea of fire.” That caused the Obama administration to reverse its decisions of three years ago and take steps to place more missile-defense interceptors in Alaska.
President Obama is no great fan of missile defense. If even he believes that the interceptors are necessary, that tells you the threat is real. The administration further evidenced its concern by flying a sortie of stealth bombers over South Korea last Thursday, to which the North Koreans responded by putting their missile units on standby alert.
Even more fundamentally, the actions of North Korea, and the ongoing Iranian nuclear program, show that the nuclear non-proliferation regime — which for decades prevented the spread of nuclear weapons to unstable governments — is disintegrating.
Regarding Iran, with sanctions appearing not to have stopped its uranium-enrichment program, the United States will likely be faced with two practical choices: either attack Iran (or support the Israelis in doing so) or accept that the Iranian government will soon have nuclear weapons as a tool to support its ambitions in the Middle East. Neither option is palatable; both hold the prospect of increased conflict and destabilization of the region, which is already headed toward chaos because of the (ironically named) “Arab Spring.”
Finally, it is now clear beyond denial that al-Qaeda has metastasized, both directly and through affiliates, and that it is planning further attacks against the United States from refuges in Africa and the Arabian peninsula. In fact, al-Qaeda is reportedly now active in Iraq, which — America having withdrawn from that country — is drifting into the orbit of Iran. The spread of nuclear weapons, along with the resurgent vitality of al-Qaeda, increases the risk that the terrorists will succeed in their goal of acquiring asymmetric weapons for use in their attacks.
And what exactly is the United States government doing in response to these growing threats? After 20 years in which it allowed the strength of America’s armed forces to decline gradually, it is now radically cutting military capability.
As I wrote in a cover story for National Review six years ago, the last time the United States engaged in a sustained military buildup was during the Reagan administration. Since then, America has been living off the capital built up during the Reagan years, cutting the size of its military by about one-half, while failing to recapitalize its inventories and substantially increasing its missions and deployments abroad.
As a result, when Barack Obama took office, the Navy had already shrunk to its smallest size since before World War I. The Air Force was smaller, and its inventory of aircraft older, than at any time since the inception of the service in 1947. The Army, which had borne the brunt of the war against terrorism, needed to replace its tracked vehicles and many of its tanks.
In the first two years of the Obama administration, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates ended most of the major remaining modernization programs in the Pentagon. However, in 2011, he proposed a ten-year defense budget with modest real increases in the top line. Almost immediately after that budget was submitted, Congress and the president cut $500 billion from the then-current ten-year baseline. The sequester that is currently underway imposes another $500 billion cut.
The upshot is that the United States will spend $50 billion less (in nominal dollars) on the military in 2013 than it spent in 2012, and by 2020 it will spend $100 billion less than it spent in 2010. The gap between what Secretary Gates proposed for 2020 and what America will spend under current budget projections will approach $250 billion. For a graphic view of what is happening, see my Corner post from early March.
The cuts are already eating into day-to-day readiness. By this summer, most Air Force combat units will be non-mission-capable. The Navy is now routinely canceling planned deployments. The longer this situation is allowed to continue, the greater the backlog there will be in maintenance and training and, ironically, the more it will cost in the end just to make up for the short-term effects of current budgets.
When our leaders in Washington refer to the cuts that have been made to America’s military, they usually use passive or impersonal constructions. They say that defense budgets “have been cut” or “will go down” — as if the reductions were imposed on them by a higher power. But the cuts did not fall from the sky; they were the result of decisions made by America’s highest political authorities, with no analysis of their impact on American security and no regard for the increasing level of global tension.
Effectively, in Washington today there is neither defense policy nor strategy. There are only numbers plugged into different budgetary scenarios in order to produce deficit projections that everyone understands are unreal but that satisfy the immediate political objectives of the authors. The problem is that other countries, and violent political movements like al-Qaeda, do have strategies and are pursuing them with consistency and purpose. They are watching what America does and calculating how to take advantage of our growing weakness. It’s now not a question of whether, but when, they will act.
— Jim Talent served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.