Sequestration or Not, Military Fiscal Food Fight Is Inevitable

Declining budgets mean that funds need to be spent more wisely and be in line with desired strategic ends.

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Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Sequestration has simply exaggerated the fiscal food fight among the services that would have happened had it not occurred. While the Obama administration blames the House Republicans for sequestration, the long knives of the Air Force and Navy have been awaiting the end of the long, costly land wars that had deprived them of their desired (some among them might argue rightful) slices of the defense budget. Even some of the combatant commanders have joined in to support this campaign. As Mike McCarthy of Defense News has reported (subscription required):

The head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear, said yesterday the Navy is unable to supply him with an adequate number of ships to meet his mission requirements because of the high global demand on the fleet. The Navy currently has 285 ships with plans to reach 300 by the end of this decade. The Navy said in January that it will require 306 ships, lowering the number by seven from a 2010 assessment.

Locklear said at the moment there are not enough vessels to carry out his missions in the Pacific region, in part because of the demand for the ships in the Middle East and to counter piracy in the Horn of Africa.

As the U.S. shifts focus to the Asia-Pacific region, Pacific Command will continuously have to deal with challenges that are becoming more complex to meet requirements to deter, assure access and prevent crises, Locklear told the House Armed Services Committee.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

And according to the commander of U.S. Strategic Command:

The nation's nuclear mission will slowly erode if the Air Force is left with no choice but to reduce flying hours and ration maintenance as a result of sequestration, U.S. Strategic Command's Gen. Robert Kehler said Tuesday.

The Air Force's bomber pilots would lack the training hours needed to maintain readiness if the service eliminates all non-critical flying and maintenance — a worst-case scenario if the $46 million in Defense Department cuts continue through the fiscal year.

…The budget uncertainty also could interfere with space operations. The curtailment of sensor operations could leave a huge gap in the command's ability to monitor space for threats, such as asteroids, and debris that could disrupt the nation's navigation and communications satellites.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

(The outgoing commander of Central Command, Marine General James Mattis, is a notable exception saying: "I have what it takes to make it the enemy's longest day and their worst day….")

Sequestration hopefully will not last exceedingly long and certainly hurts the services and those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines preparing to deploy to places such as Afghanistan, Department of Defense civilian employees, and defense industry. But hope is not a method and defense budgets will decline regardless. Declining budgets mean that funds need to be spent more wisely and be in line with desired strategic ends. As a maritime power the Navy probably does require some funds to recapitalize the fleet, but funds should not be spent because a particular service feels that it has not received enough attention over the past dozen years or on wild eyed schemes like "if we don't build a large army, land power threats won't come." Such a narrow focus could lead to what the late scholar Samuel P. Huntington referred to as " strategic monism" which could leave the nation open to threats in other areas where we are less prepared because as the old truism goes "the enemy gets a vote." Huntington's alternative "strategic pluralism"—meaning the maintaining of a suite of capabilities across potential contingency areas—is the way to go today, but the United States will have to assume more risk in order to match its ways and means to current and future strategic ends until its fiscal house is on a more firm foundation.