Washington’s annual appropriations circus will start soon, and there’s lots of work to be done — especially in the realm of defense. Two rounds of automatic cuts arising from budget sequestration, compounded by earlier cuts requested by President Obama, have taken a toll at the Pentagon. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno recently said readiness levels are now the lowest he’s seen in his 37 years of service.
Across all military services, capabilities have decreased since Obama took office. And that’s something congressional appropriators should help turn around. After all, the world isn’t getting any safer and “to provide for the common defense” is one of the primary responsibilities of the federal government. Here are five defense priorities Congress should pursue in fiscal year 2015.
1) Preserve U.S. force readiness. American soldiers have been — and should be — the best trained, best equipped in the world. Anything less, and U.S. service men and women will die in higher numbers. Last February, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey told Congress that “military readiness is in jeopardy.” Fighter squadrons have stopped flying, carriers have not sailed, and ground units have not trained due to inadequate funding. Last September, Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert predicted that Navy surge capacity “will be about one-third of the norm as we’re looking to 2014.”
2) Reform military compensation. In May 2010, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously observed: “Health care costs are eating the Defense Department alive.” The current compensation system — with rich benefits, including defined-benefit (rather than defined contribution) retirement plans — is inefficient, needlessly draining resources from training and equipment. Service personnel — and taxpayers — deserve a better, more efficient system.
3) Advance missile defense. More than 30 nations — Iran and North Korea among them — now have ballistic missile technologies. And Tehran and Pyongyang are not the only nations striving to become the world’s next nuclear power. Multilayered missile defense has never been more necessary. Compared to the damage just one ballistic missile could inflict, missile-defense costs are negligible. Congress should provide for an expanded Aegis missile defense system (sea-based defenses against short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles) and an East Coast ground-based defense (against long-range missiles). Command-and-control facilities for missile-defense radars also need to be reinvigorated, especially in space.
4) Maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. North Korea already has “the bomb.” Iran has enough enriched material for several weapons, and continues to accelerate its nuclear program. Russia and China are vigorously adding new and better types of nuclear weapons to their stockpiles. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has barred development of new U.S. nuclear weapons. And all the while, our aging arsenal — with weapons decades old — is starved of basic maintenance. The Pentagon nuclear delivery systems are slated to receive over the next seven years less than what Americans spent on their pets in 2013. Such budgeting is negligent and dangerous, undermining both the effectiveness and the deterrent value of our nuclear forces.
5) Maintain overseas military bases. A global economic power must be able to defend its interest anywhere in the world. And it is impossible to project power globally, in a timely fashion, without overseas bases. U.S. forces must be able to reach potential hot spots within hours, rather than days — it’s the difference between life and death. The terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi stands as a grim reminder of the need to be able to react speedily and flexibly as conflicts unfold. A lack of U.S. presence emboldens our foes and discourages our allies from cooperating in securing our interests.
Elected officials naturally tend to focus on domestic issues affecting their constituents. Yet leaders cannot afford to take our national security for granted. Foreign threats may be distant, but they are very, very real. The American people cannot afford to have Washington give short shrift to “the common defense.”
That’s something for congressional leaders to remember as they begin the authorizations and appropriations process.