Gutting the Army

The Obama administration's warped priorities.

0224-chuck-hagel-2On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recommended reducing size of the U.S. Army to its lowest level since before the nation's entry into WWII. "We must now adapt, innovate, and make difficult decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable -- maintaining its technological edge over all potential adversaries," Hagel said during a Pentagon news conference. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, illuminated the administration's dubious priorities. President Obama and Hagel are trying to “solve our financial problems on the backs of our military — and that can’t be done,” he explained.

The reductions are stark. The Army had already been tasked with reducing troop numbers from a wartime high of 570,000 to 490,000. Hagel proposes bringing that number down to the either 450,000 or 440,000. He defended those cuts, claiming they will allow more money to be spent on "technological superiority," "cyber resources," and Special Operations forces. 

Retired Gen. Jack Keane contended the reductions would “cut into the bone and the capabilities of the Army,” even as he ridiculed the thinking behind them. "The assumption that’s being made in the Pentagon, and it’s almost laughable if it wasn’t so serious, is they don’t believe the United States will involve itself in a ground war of any consequence again," he explained. "The fact of the matter is those assumptions have been made after World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War, and every single time they have been proven wrong. Here we are making that same assumption again. The Army is taking a much more severe cut, and the numbers of the Army are going down to pre-World War II numbers, which, on the surface of it, is irresponsible. Anybody looking at that knows it is far too much." 

Actually, they don’t. The Pentagon, which has long believed that America should be capable of fighting two ground wars simultaneously, as we did in Asia and Europe during WWII, and Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, has seemingly abandoned that idea. According to the New York Times, more recent budget and strategy documents reveal that the military must be prepared to win one conflict decisively, and fight a holding operation with a second adversary until a sufficient number of forces could be redeployed to win conflict number two. “Our analysis showed that this [reduced] force would be capable of decisively defeating aggression in one major combat theater…while also defending the homeland and supporting air and naval forces engaged in another theater against an adversary,” Hagel contended.

Given America's recent track record, one might be forgiven for wondering what constitutes winning period, much less winning decisively. President Obama and his fellow Democrats have made it clear that troop withdrawal -- on a timetable and virtually irrespective of conditions on the ground -- was their top priority in Iraq, and will be their top priority in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the president's indifference towards negotiating a status of forces agreement, and his determination to leave behind an insufficient number of troops to protect the gains we made in that nation, turned victory into defeat. It is a process being repeated in Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has rejected a security pact with America unless the Taliban are included in the process, and where Obama once again wants to leave behind a far smaller contingency of troops than his military advisors recommend to maintain our gains there.

Even if we had an administration committed to winning wars, it appears they are willing to sacrifice greater numbers of Americans to do so. Officials who saw an early draft of Hagel's announcement admit that carrying out two large-scale military operations at the same time would make success more elusive, and engender higher numbers of casualties. Just as importantly, they conceded a smaller military might give rise to increased adventurism by our adversaries. Hagel seemingly concurred. “As a consequence of large budget cuts, our future force will assume additional risk in certain areas,” he said.

Those budget cuts include far more than a reduction in troops. The U-2 spy place would be abandoned in favor of drones that operate more cheaply. The A-10 “warthogs,” an entire class of Air Force attack jets capable of effective attacks against tanks, is also facing the chopping block and will be replaced by F-35s. 

The Navy would purchase two destroyers and two attack submarines per year, even as 11 cruisers would be decommissioned until they were modernized. Training helicopters would be retired, and the National Guard would give its more weaponized Apache helicopters to the Army in exchange for Black Hawks, better suited for disaster response and other peacetime activities. Drone growth would be diminished from an around-the-clock force of 65 Reaper and Predator aircraft to 55 in total. The Pentagon will also ask for another round Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) in 2017.

On the personnel side, a one percent raise in pay would be enacted, but it would be offset by changing healthcare benefits, making personnel pay for some of their housing costs and cutting a billion dollars from commissary subsidies that allow for discounted goods for military families. General and flag officers would be subjected to a one-year pay freeze.

Hagel warned that making these cuts is a better alternative than enduring even deeper ones imposed by sequestration. Sequestration cuts would necessitate retiring an aircraft carrier, decommissioning six more cruisers, eliminating the KC-10 tanker fleet, slowing down the buying of destroyers, cutting flying hours, and dropping troop levels still further to 420,000. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contended that number of troops would undermine the military's ability to deploy for combat. "I'm telling you -- 420 (sic) is too low," he declared.

Sequestration itself is a farce. It reflects Congress's seemingly permanent inability to forestall the nation's headlong rush towards insolvency, even as it completely preserves the ever-increasing outlays required by the primary drivers of that insolvency. The nation's spending is divided into three main categories: interest on the debt, discretionary spending and mandatory spending. As projected for 2014, America will spend approximately $3.8 trillion for the entire budget. Servicing our national debt will consume six percent of that total. Discretionary spending will eat up another 30 percent, with the military consuming 57 percent of that discretionary slice. Mandatory spending accounts for 64 percent of our annual budget, the lion's share of which goes to entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Unemployment and Labor programs, as well as Medicare and other Health programs.

The amount of discretionary spending is determined by annual appropriations. Mandatory spending, on the other hand, is determined by eligibility. Thus it is far easier to make cuts to the military, such as Hagel is proposing, because Congress can merely trim the budget. Changing mandatory spending requires changing eligibility criteria, such as age for Social Security or income level for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

It is no accident that proposed cuts in mandatory spending are often referred to as dealing with "third rail" issues, in that they inevitably engender massive, and possibly career-ending resistance from a dependency-addicted nation. Such resistance is aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that derives much of its power from promoting and maintaining that dependency. In short, when cuts become inevitable, the military is vulnerable, while entitlement programs remain virtually sacrosanct.

Thus, when House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) contends that military preparedness is "being sacrificed ... on the altar of entitlements," he is spot on.

Moreover, there is an appalling lack of consistency among Democrats who insist that entitlement programs and unemployment insurance create millions of jobs, even as they remain utterly sanguine about military budget cuts that will adversely affect millions of non-military Americans whose communities depend on Defense Department expenditures and activities.

Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said that Hagel had consulted with military service chiefs on how to go about finding the proper balance between the nation's defense and budget requirements. "He has worked hard with the services to ensure that we continue to stand for the defense of our national interests -- that whatever budget priorities we establish, we do so in keeping with our defense strategy and with a strong commitment to the men and women in uniform and to their families," Kirby said. "But he has also said that we have to face the realities of our time. We must be pragmatic. We can't escape tough choices," he added.

But as noted above, the Obama administration and Democrats are escaping the tough choices. The Constitution requires the federal government to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare of the nation. Democrats and Obama have it exactly backwards. 

That is not to say that some cuts to the military aren't warranted. Yet for a nation awash in red ink, one that still faces serious and unforeseen threats from Islamist terror, an increasingly aggressive China, and Russia's Vladimir Putin, who may yet play a hand in Ukraine, a serious discussion of national priorities is in order. One that puts everything on the table for the simplest of reasons: absent national security, everything else is irrelevant. There will be no victorious enemy willing to provide Americans with anything remotely resembling the massive and overly generous safety net we take largely for granted. And hope and change are not viable substitutes for military strength, preparedness and deterrence.

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