by J. Randy Forbes

The American military is on the brink.

Not only are U.S. military leaders facing monumental budget challenges backed by minimal strategic guidance, they face shrinking forces armed with aging equipment that often fails to meet basic readiness standards.

Our military leaders have provided candid but alarming testimony on the specter of further cuts. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford said, "We will not be there to deter our potential adversaries. ... And we certainly won't be there to contain small crises before they become major conflagrations." Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli cautioned, "We will end up with a force that is not modernized, is an unbalanced force, and in the end, it will cost us lives." Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta went as far as to say that such cuts would amount to "shooting ourselves in the head."

Making matters worse, the force's size has been declining since 1990.

Then, we had a 546-ship Navy; today, we have 288. In 1990, the U.S. Army had 76 brigades; today, only 45. Two decades ago, the Air Force had twice as many fighter squadrons and bombers as today. This dwindling force is also aging. The average age of Navy ships is 20 years. Air Force bombers average 34 years old and the Marines' Amphibious Assault Vehicles average 35 years old. By skipping a generation of modernization, we have strained today's already war-weary force.

Despite challenges our military faces today, Congress and the president unwisely cut roughly $450 billion from national defense in the Budget Control Act. This short-sighted bill has also set into motion the disastrous possibility of $600 billion more in defense cuts. Such indiscriminate cuts would likely inflict irreparable harm not just to capabilities and institutions, but more importantly to our men and women in uniform.

Some believe such expansive cuts can be achieved through little more than ending our current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This simply isn't true. Others want a smaller, regionally focused military, transforming the United States into simply "one among many." Some acknowledge budget cuts will reduce the military, but pretend this represents an "acceptable risk" with historical precedent. These advocates of a smaller military point to the late '90s and ignore the lessons learned at the outset of our current conflicts. Once a major crisis emerges or America is challenged on more than one front, our military will be far too small and casualties far too high. Instead of returning to defense planning schemes of the 1990s, the president and lawmakers would be wise to note the rapid military buildup of nations like China, as highlighted recently by Panetta, and the threat such nations pose to regional stability and enduring American influence.

Former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton recently testified that, during his 34 years in Congress, the United States was involved in 12 military contingencies, only one of which was expected. This debunks the myth many believe that we can rely upon smaller defense budgets due to an unfounded ability to predict where and how the military will be needed in the future.

When building our military, we buy an insurance policy to counter threats we can predict as well as those we cannot. Any other approach simply ignores history. Our leaders ought to drop the defense budget ax until we can truly grasp the consequences of decisions to cut defense spending.


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