By Morgan Deane:
There have been several reports and articles contending that budget cuts to American forces are putting them under stress and making them incapable of meeting America’s defense needs. In a time of budgetary restraint being “police men” of the world makes America’s lengthy and ongoing military commitments wasteful. This point has some merit, yet a more nuanced examination indicates legitimate problems with good near-term solutions.
The Heritage Foundation produces a yearly index of military power. They base American readiness on factors such as capability, modernization, and functional combat power. They conclude that the Army is weak and the rest of forces only marginally ready. The Heritage Foundation explains they have been degraded after many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration on readiness and capacity. On top of that the air force reports that the F35 might be delayed again, and that almost half of F15’s need grounding and major refurbishment. The Heritage Foundation goes on to assess the threats this degraded force must counter. They rate the threats from Russia and China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism from the Middle East, Afghanistan ,and Pakistan as extremely high. Terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan for example, could trigger a war between those nuclear powers in South Asia. China continues aggressively modernizing its forces, disputing contested islands, and threatening to close off sea lanes in the South China Sea. Russia is still bellicose and aggressively undermining nation states in Ukraine and propping up regimes in Syria.
General David Petraeus offered a slightly different view and suggests the sky isn’t falling. He points out how military spending is up compared to the Cold War, adjusting for inflation, and the US spends more money on its military than the other eight nations combined. This is a good point that still isn’t entirely accurate. It seems disingenuous and a bit naïve to simply calculate military threats based on the amount of money spent. If 9/11 taught us anything, it was that a handful of people with low cost items like box cutters could end up causing billions of dollars in economic damage and kill thousands of people. John F. Kennedy said that America should pay any price and bear any burden to defeat the threats facing America. It seems difficult to argue that spending “X” number of dollars is too much, if that number is needed to save lives. On top of this, some countries such as China manipulate their record to appear as though they are spending less. They don’t calculate such items as their nuclear arms program, weapons procurement budget, or housing of soldiers, which forces most analysts to conclude that Chinese spending is roughly four times what they actually report. This would make Chinese spending roughly comparable to the United States per year.
Petraeus goes on to say that some weapons or systems are aging, but most are fair quality, operable, and the procurement budget is healthy. The militaries, for the most part, are not conducting robust training to prepare for future conflicts he concedes, however, he does point out that a third of the Army and half of the Marine Corps continue to go through reality based training centers to increase readiness.
Finally, he points out that numerous combat rotations often produce negative consequences such as stress on the soldiers and their families due to lengthy separations, degraded equipment, and the inability to train for other missions. The supposedly degrading counter insurgencies give American forces plenty of operations coordinating multiple branches using air, land, and naval forces at the same time. Petraeus concludes that with a moderate increase in budget (about 50 billion a year) America can rectify many of its current problems, and the current problems aren’t nearly so bad as naysayers assert.
I would add that high operational tempo has benefits as well as negatives. The body of experience from the last 15 years in the war on terror results in highly skilled NCOs, officers, and well trained pilots. Other nations suffer from peace disease, with few leaders that have combat experience, and their training often falls short of preparing soldiers for combat. Analysts point to Chinese pilots for example, who have very rudimentary training and little ability to improvise in unexpected situations. The Chinese have many new weapon systems and platforms that need to be operated in a coordinated manner to be effective, but they have never done so under combat conditions.
It’s very difficult to assess future challenges as well as believe the nation has prepared accordingly. Many before World War I thought they could handle the technological changes, but were proven horribly wrong. In fact, in most wars America has been vastly under prepared and paid the price in blood before they could field well trained and equipped soldiers. At other points, America spent large amounts of money on readiness such as nuclear stockpile and early warning systems to fight an expected enemy. Yet then they ended up never needing them. Situations like that result in what looks like overkill and wasteful spending.
It’s also very attractive to talk about using that money for social projects. In contrast to helping the poor, providing low cost health care, and improving roads and schools, preparing expensive weapons systems to be operationally capable for needless wars is a very difficult case to make. But warfare is a matter of life or death and ignored problems overseas will end up eventually becoming bigger problems on America’s door step. This is the reason to keep funding and readiness a top priority for national security.
Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.