Congressional Republicans cannot do much to make President Obama devise a credible strategy to defeat the Islamic State, or to counter Russian expansionism. There is one thing they can do, however, to contribute to the recovery of American strength overseas, particularly if they take the Senate this fall. They can make it clear that they intend for the next president to have the military means at his disposal to meet whatever threats we face.
Those capabilities are steadily and quickly eroding. Budget cuts will force the Army to further scale back training for units based in the United States, allowing only for training to company level (one hundred or so troops). The size of the Army is being reduced to pre–World War II levels. The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since before World War I; the Air Force is smaller (and flying older aircraft) than at any time since its founding.
The U.S. is conducting bombing missions over the Middle East, but with just one carrier in the area, where we once had two. Half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet — which would have been used to strike Bashar Assad’s government a year ago, before President Obama abandoned his plans to do so — is being “placed in storage” for lack of funding to modernize the ships. With the current shipbuilding budget, the chance of the cruisers’ ever coming out of “storage” is small. After cuts in funding, the Air Force was forced to stand down a number of squadrons for want of flight training. The A-10 Warthog, a plane that carved up a better-armed opponent in Iraq twice in the past two decades and has been the Army’s favorite backup, is scheduled to be retired soon.
To reverse this decline, the sequestration of defense spending should be undone and spending should be, at a minimum, restored to the modest levels of increase that Defense Secretary Robert Gates envisioned in 2011. If we don’t do so, the bipartisan National Defense Panel concluded this summer, the Pentagon may not be capable of fulfilling the already-curtailed national defense strategy.
The longstanding idea that we can execute the same objectives with a “leaner, meaner” force is a canard. Reforming the Pentagon is important, but we still need to spend more. Better ships, for instance, are no replacement for lots of ships, as Mitt Romney pointed out during the 2012 campaign, only to attract scorn from his opponent. President Obama wants to “pivot” our navy and air operations to Asia, but American interests and loyalties have required keeping a presence in the Middle East. The only answer: a bigger navy than we have planned. A faster build rate for the new class of attack submarines is one important place to start.
The cuts to the Pentagon have substantially pared back exercises and maintenance for our armed forces. The costs of performing deferred maintenance are obvious enough, but deferred training costs money too. To get back to an acceptable level of readiness, our troops will need to train even more than usual, because planned exercises have been backlogged.
Congress did all this damage in the name of fiscal responsibility. But our budgets must be written to meet our national-security goals, not the other way around. The Pentagon has borne a disproportionate share of budget cuts. Inflation-adjusted defense spending, ignoring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has declined 12 percent since 2010. Defense spending as a share of gross national product is set to slip to historic post–World War II lows, even though American interests have become more expensive to defend.
As Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) explained in his bold and perspicacious defense speech last week, national defense is the most important responsibility of the federal government, Yet we have made sharp cuts to defense without improving our dire long-term fiscal outlook. That’s because that outlook is driven by the dramatic projected growth of federal entitlements. Starving the Pentagon won’t solve that problem.
Calling for a larger defense budget, meanwhile, will not solve the problem of a feckless foreign policy. What it will do is communicate, to voters and to the world, that Republicans mean to bring American decline to an end.