Hoping to reverse the trend of “enormous [defense] cuts” ahead, House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee chairman J. Randy Forbes (R–VA) held a hearing on the state of the military. Testifying before Congress were the vice chiefs of the four services: Army General Peter Chiarelli, Navy Admiral Jonathon Greenert, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Jr., and Air Force General Phillip Breedlove.
One of the primary drivers of decreased military readiness, according to the vice chiefs, is the unrelenting pace of operations for the past decade. No military service has been immune from wear and tear over 10 years of constant combat and other operations. According to General Dunford, two-thirds of non-deployed Marines are not at acceptable readiness levels. This means they’re unable to respond to unforeseen crises if needed.
As Congress already knows, the Navy has seen its share of readiness problems, which are growing. Over the past year, a full half of the entire Navy was underway daily or engaged. This has led to decreased time for maintenance, which in turn has dramatically affected the quality and condition of the Navy fleet. While often forgotten, the U.S. Air Force has been flying combat operations for the past 20 years over Iraqi skies, and it has seen aircraft literally fall from the sky—likely due to wear and tear.
The vice chiefs also painted a grim view of the military’s inability to surge if needed. The ever-increasing need for military resources in the Central Command region has left other combatant commanders lacking the capabilities they need in order to support America’s strategic interests elsewhere.
Stretched by 10 years of war and countless other unexpected humanitarian and supporting responsibilities, the United States military is at the breaking point. If the services do not have the resources to meet the requirements of the commanders right now, they cannot be expected to meet them if Congress cuts the budget. The vice chiefs all agreed that cuts above the President’s proposed $400 billion would force “fundamental changes” in America’s grand strategy. Many things the military does today would simply stop.
As the vice chiefs made abundantly clear, the services do not want a hollow and stretched force that superficially fulfills missions but cracks under pressure. The only alternative will be a much smaller force that is simply unable to perform the same kinds of missions the nation has come to expect from its military.
Some may say that a decreased mission set will carry with it “acceptable risk,” but when the Marine Corps is unable to evacuate Americans and embassy staff from countries in turmoil (as in the recent Arab Spring uprisings) or the Air Force cannot rescue military personnel behind enemy lines, or the Navy cannot send ships to aid tsunami and earthquake victims, we will know that America’s military supremacy ended here—when Congress chose to reduce debt disproportionately on the backs of the military instead of addressing the Big Three entitlements that are the primary drivers of constantly growing national debt.
Mackenzie Eaglen, as The Heritage Foundation’s Research Fellow for National Security Studies, specializes in subjects such as defense strategy, military readiness and transformation efforts. A policy expert within Heritage’s Davis Institute for International Studies, Eaglen also focuses on the defense industrial base and the size and structure of the nation’s armed forces.