Obama's Credible Threat

Obama was able to project U.S. military strength, but the sequester will make doing so more difficult.

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The USS Carter Hall participates in joint maneuvers with the Jordanian Navy in the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan as part of Eager Lion, a multinational military exercise, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Under the watchful eye of stern-faced American advisers, hundreds of U.S.-trained Jordanian soldiers are holding war games that could eventually form the basis of an assault in Syria. There is fear of spillover from the Syrian war in this U.S.-allied kingdom, and the potential for a Jordanian role in securing Syria's chemical stockpiles should Bashar Assad's regime lose control.

Credibility. This is the single characteristic most often invoked when discussing the threat of a limited U.S. military strike against Syria. Time and again, President Obama and many other policymakers have come back to the importance of a "credible U.S. military threat" of strikes. This threat is now credited as a primary reason why Syrian dictator Bashar Assad may agree to a Russian proposal to avert such a strike.

Credible military strength comes from a complex set of ingredients, including the capacity of people and the capability of available resources. A key feature supporting these is the readiness of U.S. forces to successfully conduct this mission. 

But readiness has been falling in each of the last four years as the defense budget has come down. Sequestration has accelerated this decline and further puts at risk U.S. credibility if it continues next year and into the future. 

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

The Navy is widely expected to play a prominent role in any potential military action against Syria. As Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert outlined last week at the American Enterprise Institute, however, the service is facing a doubly dangerous cocktail of reduced modernization and shrinking readiness.

As the CNO described, the Navy canceled five ship deployments this year due to budget cuts and reduced America's "surge-ready" carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups by two-thirds. This is especially worrisome because these forces are normally on stand-by to respond to unforeseen crises. Deferred or canceled ship and aircraft maintenance, reduced training opportunities and units unprepared to deploy when needed all make up a less ready force. 

Prior to Congress shifting some money around mid-year, the Navy had expected to cancel eight surface ships maintenance availabilities. As sequestration continues into 2014, the CNO expects this number to climb to 34 in the absence of reprogramming. Even with some relief – no sure thing – the Navy would still have to cancel about 17 availabilities next year alone.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Nor is the problem limited to just ships. The Navy will also be forced to cancel 191 aircraft availabilities in 2014, up from 87 in 2013. 

Moreover, the service is so far behind in its aircraft maintenance plans that even if full funding were restored in 2015 onwards, it would take about five years to wipe out the growing backlog. This means increased wear and tear over shorter time periods, which shortens life-cycles and grows acquisition costs when replacements are needed sooner than expected.

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

Unfortunately, the service may not be able to acquire the platforms it needs in the future once existing ones age out due to neglected upkeep. As the chief outlined, budget cuts in 2014 will force the Navy to cut planned purchases for almost all of its major modernization programs, from Virginia-class submarines to DDG-51 destroyers, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Littoral Combat Ships. Admiral Greenert expects that sequestration will take about 25 Navy aircraft next year. 

Today, the Navy has four destroyers and an amphibious ship in the Eastern Mediterranean as part of its regularly planned global presence. These units, and the others like them deployed around the world, received the best training possible before they left port. Yet aside from units about to depart on regularly scheduled deployments, the CNO recently cautioned that, "The rest of the fleet is not ready to deploy with all the capabilities that are needed that we would normally have in our fleet response plan."

In order to maintain credible and capable military strength and power, the readiness slide will have to be reversed. Otherwise the U.S. may find that brutal dictators' decisions are no longer sufficiently influenced by the threat of force. Or worse, Washington could find men like Assad willing to allow a strike to occur and possibly expose some of our forces to unnecessary risk as a result. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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