Sequestration has done material harm to America’s national security at a dangerous moment. The predictable crisis resulting from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability is evolving in a way that requires a serious and credible American military threat in support of negotiations and other non-military efforts to resolve it. An unpredictable crisis has emerged on the Korean Peninsula, where a state that already has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is testing American resolve. The cancellation of scheduled deployments of eight U.S. Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier destined for the Persian Gulf, and the grounding of 17 U.S. Air Force combat squadrons — all of this the result of sequestration — is thus a devastating blow to American global credibility just when our enemies and friends are watching most closely.
Sequestration has had an impact on the combat elements of all of the armed services. By far the most significant was the cancellation in February of the deployment of the carrier strike group built around the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman. That cancellation has created a window in 2013 during which the United States will have no aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, a departure from the posture adopted in 2010 as tensions with Iran increased. Iran’s military immediately took notice; an editorial in Mashregh, a paper controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, explained: “At a minimum, one can conclude from this decision that the United States does not imagine any military operations in the Persian Gulf in the short term, because in this situation the reduction of military forces would be foolish.”
In addition to canceling the Truman deployment, the Navy has grounded four carrier air wings and restricted the flying time of two more. It canceled the scheduled deployments of a guided-missile destroyer, two guided-missile frigates, an attack submarine, a hospital ship, and a salvage tug, as well as curtailing the tours of another guided-missile destroyer and another guided-missile frigate after only two months at sea.
The Air Force has announced the grounding of an F-22 squadron and an F-15E squadron, and the closing of one A-10C squadron. In addition, three more F-15E squadrons, four F-16 C/D wings and three squadrons, two more A-10C squadrons, two B-1B squadrons, and one B-52 squadron have stood down. A number of other combat units have been restricted to minimal flying hours. These decisions have an immediate impact on American military capability, since the grounded units are not available for missions. But they also have a longer-term impact, since it can take as long as six months to get a unit back to combat-ready status after it has stopped flying.
It is harder to measure the impact of sequestration on the ground forces because their training schedules are not normally publicly available, but both the Army and the Marines have announced the curtailment of training for units that are not scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan. Even units that are deploying have seen some of their preparations reduced — conferences and seminars that are a normal part of pre-deployment training have been canceled for some units, for example.
Public discussion of these operational consequences of sequestration has naturally focused on the partisan political fight over the federal budget and fiscal policy, creating an odd partisan role reversal. Democrats and liberal media have been more inclined to defend the military rhetorically, holding up the damage being done to the armed forces as evidence that sequestration must be reversed, while some Republicans and conservative media have accused the uniformed military of grandstanding to support the president’s domestic agenda. The entire discussion has been overshadowed, of course, by the continent-spanning blame game about who exactly is responsible for the sequestration in the first place.
Without assigning blame or debating the wisdom of sequestration, let us consider the question of military “grandstanding.” It is important for several reasons. The accusation that the uniformed military has deliberately chosen to reduce the armed forces’ ability to defend the nation in a time of war in order to promote the president’s domestic political agenda is quite a serious one. It should not be made lightly or without careful examination of the evidence. Since the military is precluded by law and custom from involving itself directly in domestic politics, such an accusation is tantamount to an assertion that it has become so politicized and partisan that it is willing to subordinate its own constitutional obligations to the pursuit of domestic political advantage for one party or another. If the Joint Chiefs of Staff did, in fact, choose to undermine their own combat forces to help President Obama obtain a political benefit, then they have violated the oaths they swore, which are carefully crafted to create an obligation to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” rather than to be loyal to the commander-in-chief. Anyone who seriously believes that the Chiefs have acted in this manner should be demanding an investigation and prepared to demand their dismissal.