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America’s armed forces are the safeguard of our nation’s liberties and an instrument of global freedom and security. The U.S. military protects the homeland, secures America’s national interests abroad, bolsters international alliances, and even assists in disaster response. No other country has the enduring vital national interests or responsibilities of the United States; therefore, the U.S. military must have a global reach.
To protect and defend America’s vital national interests, the U.S. military must have the tools it needs to deter attacks and enhance diplomatic efforts—and, when diplomacy and deterrence fail, to fight and win. Combat victory requires a force adequately equipped to defend the U.S. and its allies against strategic attacks, to prevail in traditional and asymmetrical warfare, to defeat terrorist organizations and organized criminals, and to respond to threats that emanate from failed states.
America’s security commitments around the globe have strained every branch of the armed forces, but the root of the problem lies in decisions made in the 1990s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton cut defense spending dramatically. The Clinton Administration reduced the entire military—its forces and equipment—by fully one-third under the utopian assumption that the end of the Cold War would lead to a “lasting peace.”
Cashing in peace dividends is an even riskier proposition now than it was after the Cold War ended. President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup in the 1980s, coupled with his successful diplomacy, created a cushion that largely allowed defense investments to be deferred in the 1990s, even though military operations were ramped up. Also, defense budget increases since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have generated little cushion. They have largely been consumed by a high pace of operations. The ongoing need to invest in and recapitalize the force (i.e., buy new planes, ships, weapon systems, and equipment) remains.
On average, major U.S. military platforms are now more than 25 years old and are wearing out much more quickly than planned. The combat vehicle fleet of Abrams tanks is largely based on technology from the 1980s and earlier. Many of today’s tanker and bomber pilots are flying in airplanes first used by their grandfathers. The U.S. Navy fleet contains the smallest number of ships since 1916. Yet the Navy is being tasked with more responsibilities than ever, such as securing vital sea-lanes of commerce around the world worth over $14 trillion annually.
Today, America is asking all of its military forces to do more. U.S. soldiers are under stress. They have been strained by 10 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 1990s “procurement holiday” has left the military with outdated and decrepit weapons and equipment. These circumstances have taken their toll on both people and equipment. The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Independent Panel concluded in 2010 that “the aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.” This “train wreck” is here, and it threatens to undermine America’s ability to defend itself and protect its vital national interests at a time when threats to its security are increasing.
Both Iran and North Korea have active nuclear and ballistic missile programs and the ability to reach U.S. allies and forward-deployed troops with ballistic missiles. China is engaged in a non-transparent major military buildup with unclear intentions. A re-emergent Russia is vigorously modernizing its nuclear forces and seeks to intimidate its former Soviet neighbors, Europe, and the NATO alliance. Terrorist threats to the U.S. and its European allies emanate from Southewest Asia, the Middle East, and failed states. Cyber attacks threaten critical financial and communication networks in an already teetering economy as well as the national security assets that employ them.
Despite such threats, the Administration has lowered the defense budget baseline by some $750 billion over a 10-year period when calculating from President Obama’s second defense budget request in FY 2011. Congress has acquiesced in this budgetary sleight of hand, which permits the Obama Administration to argue that it has not cut the defense budget at all. The August 2011 debt deal now threatens to “hollow out” the military. On top of discretionary caps already legislated, the new budget act stipulated that the newly created Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction must agree on a sufficient deficit-reduction plan by December 2011 and Congress adopt it into law by January 15, 2012, or an automatic trigger would force cuts of $1.2 trillion—with half of that coming out of the defense budget. Such cuts would irreparably harm the U.S. military and endanger vital U.S. interests.
The debt deal also did not fully address the cause of the debt crisis: runaway domestic spending and the burgeoning growth of Social Security and the other big social entitlements. Indeed, the projected growth of entitlement programs will soon make it impossible for Congress to provide a robust defense budget and take care of those in uniform.
Providing for the common defense is the first constitutionally mandated responsibility of the United States government. To do so most effectively and cost-efficiently, the U.S. military’s missions should be driven by America’s vital national security interests and the threats we face. Establishing the right combination of capabilities will therefore be the military’s greatest challenge in the years ahead. Accordingly, Congress and the Administration should:
American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and The Foreign Policy Initiative, “Defending Defense: Setting the Record Straight on U.S. Military Spending Requirements,” October 14, 2010.
Mackenzie Eaglen and Julia Pollak, “How to Save Money, Reform Processes, and Increase Efficiency in the Defense Department,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2507, January 10, 2011.
The Heritage Foundation, “A Strong National Defense: The Armed Forces America Needs and What They Will Cost,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 90, April 5, 2011.
Kim R. Holmes, “A Dangerous Debt Ceiling Deal,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3331, August 1, 2011.