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March 24, 2013

Watch for Happy Talk on Cuts from Hagel

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The wall fell, and Washington couldn't cash the "peace dividend" fast enough.

People were the Pentagon's most expensive asset, so people had to go. Next on the chopping block: equipment. The brass started dumping inventories and cutting corners on maintenance. Training took a hit, further hurting readiness.

Then, they sold out the future: postponing and even cancelling new equipment acquisition. Slowly but surely, the armed forces were hollowing out.

Most of the Capitol didn't notice. Defense cuts relieved the pressure to make tough fiscal decisions. And the Pentagon kept cranking out reports explaining how less and less was really just fine.

First came the Base Force: the Pentagon's assessment of what could be jettisoned in a world without Soviets. The ink was hardly dry when then-Secretary Les Aspin directed a "Bottom-Up Review" rationalizing a speedup in the drawdown. And throughout the Clinton era, the cuts just kept a-coming through a series of blithely reassuring Quadrennial Defense Reviews, or QDRs.

It was all happy talk, but it gave Congress cover to look the other way. That lasted until Army readiness plummeted so low, it struggled to respond to relatively minor commitments such as Bosnia and Kosovo.

Clearly, President Obama is working from that old Clinton playbook. His adminstration produced the congressionally mandated QDR in 2010, only to repudiate its own conclusion two years later, substituting a new "strategic guidance" that rubber-stamped massive defense cuts. Now -- a year later -- newly minted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has penned a memo calling for a "strategic choices and management review."

What changed so much in less than year to trigger yet another review? America's place in the world is no safer. In fact, the administration's recent about-face on the need to bump up missile defenses acknowledges that America is less safe.

Yet having already acceded to defense sequester cuts on top of anemic long-term defense spending plans, the president apparently feels the need for a new piece of paper that explains how further cuts are just dandy and couldn't possibly compromise national security.

Hagel will no doubt deliver just such a report. The only question is how he'll make it sound plausible. Perhaps he'll play the efficiency card. His Pentagon predecessor Robert Gates did that, sticking an "efficiency" label on every cut he made.

Hagel might also urge abandoning missions and requirements. For example, he can just declare that the United States no longer needs a nuclear triad of ground-based missiles, bombers and submarines. Or, he might downplay threats like the pace of Iran's nuclear program. Or he might play the austerity card: Bye-bye, two-front capability, we just can't afford to take on more than one military operation at a time.

Only one problem: All of these gambits are disconnected from the truth of what is needed to protect America's vital interests. "The reality is," says defense expert Dan Goure, "that a force sized for one major conflict will be inadequate to meet current U.S. commitments and confidently deter existing threats." Goure further notes that, even absent major conflicts, the armed services are already struggling to meet day-to-day commitments, leaving the Pentagon with a force that is "brittle at best."

Perhaps Hagel knows that happy talk about risk-free defense cuts won't stand up to scrutiny. That would explain why the Defense Department is slow-rolling the congressional commission established to conduct an independent assessment of the Pentagon's strategic planning. It would also explain why it's bad-mouthing its own, still unwritten QDR, due next year.

The Administration claims the Congressionally-mandated report has become little more than bureaucratic exercise. It's an odd complaint coming from a White House that has mastered the art of check-the-box strategic force planning.

-Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation

First appeared in The Examiner.

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