The United States typically maintains two carrier groups in the Persian Gulf at the same time. That number was not picked out of a hat; it turns out that, among other important missions, it is much easier to protect the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane, with one carrier group inside the Strait and another positioned in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, or nearby waterways. The carrier group outside the Strait can collect real-time intelligence and provide an additional strike axis that helps protect the Strait. So having only one carrier in the area substantially reduces the possibility that the United States can protect the Strait effectively should the Iranians decide to close it, as they repeatedly threaten to do.
All of this is relevant because last Thursday the Pentagon announced it was delaying the deployment of a second carrier — the USS Harry Truman — to Central Command. The reason was a lack of funding. The proximate cause was, of course, the impending sequester. Yet crippling actions like this have been in view for some time because of funding decisions that predate the sequester.
In the spring of 2010, Congress created by law an independent panel to review the plans of the Department of Defense. That panel consisted of 20 members appointed on a bipartisan basis. It was co-chaired by Bill Perry, former secretary of defense under President Clinton, and Steve Hadley, who was national-security adviser to George W. Bush.
After several months of deliberation, the Perry/Hadley Panel produced a unanimous report, which found, among other things, that for some time the government had been underfunding the military, that the Navy needed to be increased by 50 to 60 ships, that every Service was desperately in need of recapitalization and reform, that substantial additional funding was necessary, and (in a specific warning at the beginning of the report) that “a train wreck was coming” for the military unless the panel’s recommendations were heeded.
With the notable exception of the House Armed Services Committee under the leadership of Representative Buck McKeon (R., Calif.), the president and Congress ignored the panel’s report. Shortly afterward, then-secretary of defense Bob Gates produced his last set of budget recommendations. While Secretary Gates did not request additional funding at the level recommended by the panel, he did propose modest increases that would, among other things, have stabilized the size of the Navy and allowed the other Services to begin recapitalizing their inventories.
With no strategic analysis whatsoever, with no idea even of where the cuts would come from, the president proposed $400 billion in cuts off the budget that his own secretary of defense had just submitted. Subsequently he and Congress agreed to almost $500 billion in cuts, and then agreed to the sequester of an additional $500 billion over the next ten years. Secretary of defense Leon Panetta (Gates had since resigned) referred to the sequester as “devastating,” while General Martin Dempsey — chairman of the Joint Chiefs — said it was like “shooting ourselves in the head.”
The result is that the government is already spending $50 billion less on the military in fiscal 2013 than Secretary Gates said would be necessary only two years ago. With the sequester, defense spending will drop to about $100 billion less than Secretary Gates recommended for upcoming years — without any consideration of the impact on American national security, and in defiance of the urgent warnings issued by the bipartisan panel, which the government itself created precisely to give it advice on these matters.
The sequester should be repealed, but that is not enough. Congress should plan on returning defense funding to at least the level proposed by Secretary Gates, before the government began imposing cuts without even attempting to determine the actual requirements of American security. The issue is not, strictly speaking, the sequester; it is funding the Department of Defense at a level that is consistent with protecting American security at an acceptable level of risk.
There are those who argue that funding the military at adequate levels is unaffordable. If that is so, why was it affordable to spend almost $800 billion four years ago on a “stimulus” package, not a dime of which went for military modernization? And how will the government afford anything if there is a shooting war in the Mideast that cripples the global economy, or if rising tension in the South or East China Seas, uncontained by American power, results in a conflict where the United States is bound by treaty to defend one of the participants?
The whole point of America’s military is to manage risk — to anticipate and deter or defuse it, so that the United States can protect its homeland and its vital national interests without war whenever possible. But our servicemen and women, good as they are, can’t do their job if their government wholly fails to sustain the military at an adequate size and with modern equipment.
One thing is certain. The failure of the carrier to deploy, and the cuts in defense spending that caused it, did not pass unnoticed in Tehran, Pyongyang, Moscow, or Peking, or in the councils of al-Qaeda. The rest of the world takes our government’s failures seriously, even if Americans, who have become used to them by now, do not.
None of this means that the United States won’t try to keep the Strait of Hormuz open if the Iranians move to close it. Protecting the shipping lanes of the world is a vital national interest of the United States, and to paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, when the balloon goes up America goes to war with the forces it has. It does mean the risk of such a war is greater, and that the operation, if it is necessary, will take longer, have a greater risk of failure, and be more likely to result in substantial American casualties. If and when that happens — when our servicemen and women, who sacrifice so much and deserve so much better, are lost at sea or come home in bags — maybe someone will pay attention.
— Senator Jim Talent served on the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. He is currently a distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a member of the U.S–China Economic and Security Review Commission, and an appointee to the Independent Panel that will review the next Quadrennial Defense Review of the Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are his own.
First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner"