While President Obama is not expected to devote much time to the challenges facing America's military during his annual State of the Union address, Congress might want to take stock of today's defense realities.
Since the defense budget peaked in 2010, Congress has been quick to approve proposed cuts to the military's top line. But Congress has been just as swift to oppose specific proposals made once those vague budget cuts trickle down to become real-world, tangible consequences.
Politicians are ignoring the reality that rejecting the "hard choices" required as a result of their budgetary decisions (e.g., sequestration) does not mean cuts will go away. It just means they will have to come from somewhere else within the defense budget.
Every rejection of a base closure round, of smaller increases in military pay or of equipment retirement means that the military has to take the money from other priorities.
Examples abound. Congress has chosen repeatedly to override proposals to slow the rate of growth in military health care costs, and has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to initiate another base closure round. Yet it still questions why the Defense Department cannot grow the Navy faster, halt the early retirement of aircraft or reduce the number of civilian employees.
A sample of Pentagon initiatives blocked or overridden by Congress in recent years includes:
The cost of not approving these needed reforms has been an increasingly dangerous sacrifice of combat power, including:
It is time for members of Congress to address the growing imbalances within the defense budget which are having a direct and harmful impact on America's defenses.
While no one party shares all the culpability for this paralysis, all policymakers have a mutual responsibility to fix the growing crisis and become effective advocates for America's men and women in uniform. Providing world-class pay and benefits to service members is an important part of the equation. But an equally important, yet often ignored, imperative is to maintain an unmatched fighting force to keep warfighters coming home after prevailing in conflict.
Congress must first look in the mirror and admit it has a problem. Only then can it even begin to reverse the decline in American hard power capabilities. By giving the Pentagon leeway to pursue necessary reform, Congress will help preserve both a professional force and military muscle.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.