America's Defense Death Spiral

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s speech previewing the FY15 defense budget certainly provided a target-rich environment for critics from both political parties and a broad range of interest groups. And the criticism has flowed freely since that Monday press conference.

From invective-laden commentary about the near-fatal compromise of America’s security, to those fearful of how reduced defense spending will affect local economic conditions, to those who feel not enough was cut, the Secretary has taken flak from all sides. Frankly, you have to feel some measure of sympathy for a man who is dutifully carrying out the unenviable task of reporting to Congress—and to his boss, the Commander in Chief—the logical consequences of their institutional irresponsibility in failing to provide for the security of our nation.

Much can be said for the Secretary’s thoughtful description of the various challenges confronting the Department of Defense. But what was truly fascinating about his presentation was its mixture of Orwellian doublespeak, dire warning, and blunt realism—all bookended by notes of assurance.

The Secretary was quite candid when speaking about the growing uncertainty in world affairs, the worsening of the threat to U.S. security interests, and the increased levels of risk the U.S. will need to accept as our military forces are reduced. He pointedly noted that "the abrupt spending cuts...imposed on DOD" were so severe in scope, scale, and timeline that we would reap a force "not capable of fulfilling assigned missions." For example, we will be left with an Army capable of addressing only a single major contingency at a time.

But the Secretary also ladled out large doses of happy-talk. A much smaller force facing an uglier world would somehow be a “more capable force.” The cuts, delays, and terminations "will help bring our military into balance." And, although our military "will continue to experience gaps in training and maintenance" while facing a "dynamic and increasingly dangerous security environment," it would still be able to "protect our country and fulfill the President's defense strategy."

Poppycock! A smaller, less resourced force will be able to do less. And a smaller, less capable force will have a more difficult time successfully engaging a more dangerous world where, to use the Secretary’s words, “American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”

Secretary Hagel closed on a Pollyannaish note: “with this reality comes opportunity…to reshape our defense enterprise to be better prepared, positioned and equipped to secure America’s interests in the years ahead.” In reality, however, America will find itself increasingly pressed on all fronts by myriad competitors who will see through the rhetoric and press their own interests at the expense of America’s, and we will have few options available to respond effectively.

Instead of putting a reassuring spin on horrible news, Secretary Hagel would have better served the country by flatly stating that the mindless cuts agreed to by both the Congress and the White House have put this nation at unacceptable risk. And he should have announced a different budget—not an even more fanciful one, but the one he has in reserve…the budget that is fully constrained by sequester-level funding that remains current law.

By offering up a wishful budget premised on additional funding that would have to be negotiated within Congress and between Congress and the White House, Hagel conveyed the false notion that our soon-to-be-hobbled military will be able to adequately defend U.S. security interests. Congress will undoubtedly embrace this fiction to avoid making the difficult spending decisions required to free up money for the defense we need.

Remember that sequestration was intended to be so injurious to our country that no one would ever allow it to take effect—that Congress and the president would be forced to make long-overdue reforms in federal entitlement programs. Yet here we are. Sadly, neither the administration nor Congress appear to have it within them to address the out-of-control deficit, driven almost exclusively by entitlement spending, that is relentlessly compromising the security and long-term viability of the United States.

This willingness to trade long-term good for short-term gain pervades our political establishment. There is no little irony in the Secretary’s admission that, as a senator, he supported dramatic increases in active-duty pay and benefits—even though military leaders were strongly opposed. They knew such commitments weren’t sustainable for the long haul.

But in the Secretary’s words, for politicians, “it was the right thing to do at the time” in part because “we had few constraints on defense spending.” In other words, why worry about the long-term consequences of policies that have short-term appeal in the arena of public opinion? Now the Secretary finds himself saddled with the rotten fruit of such thinking.

For every recommendation made by Hagel to soften the impending implosion of our defense establishment, some Member of Congress has protested that his or her favored project should be off-limits to adjustment. Collectively, these objections will prevent any change to defense spending, even while Congress refuses to relieve the Department of the legal requirement to make draconian reductions in spending!

Meanwhile, President Obama stands serenely above the tragedy of his own making, refusing to engage in any action that would provide for legislative relief, reprioritize his Administration objectives, or explain to the American public why their security in an increasingly dangerous world is less important than federal “investments” in illusory “green energy technologies.”

During the wars, our political leaders nearly fell over themselves in their rush to demonstrate how much they supported our troops. They committed the Pentagon to unsustainable levels of personnel costs, while excoriating the senior military officers for their presumed irresponsibility in sending our forces into harm’s way ill-equipped, poorly trained, and conceptually unprepared for the rigors of the type of conflict that evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, as our forces return from battle and the political immediacy of assuring their welfare diminishes in competition with other special interests in an election year, the Department finds it must contort itself like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat to try to convince America that it can fully assure national security even as it reduces military capacity to levels not seen for a century, bets its future on yet-unproven-futuristic technologies, and is prevented from achieving real savings by the restrictions placed on it by a political class that refuses to shoulder any cost of its own that might result from a closed base, canceled weapons program, or angered veterans’ organization.

The Obama administration has shown in its own national defense budget that it cares more about committing American taxpayers to greater indebtedness than keeping our country safe and our interests protected. And Congress is a fully witting accomplice.

Secretary Hagel will testify before Congress next week. In addition to revealing some budget details, we should speak clearly and forcefully about the realities of our compromised national security posture. Perhaps then Congress will pause from its interminable bickering long enough to understand the devastating, long-term consequences their sequester will have on “the common Defense.” The Budget Control Act of 2011 should be repealed now, before America’s defense death spiral is unrecoverable.

 - Dakota Wood is a senior research fellow in defense programs for the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Dakota Wood Senior Research Fellow, Defense Programs
Center for National Defense

Originally appeared in The National Interest