Be Alarmed . . . Be Very Alarmed

Defense by from The Weekly Standard, August 11, 2014

An unquestionably eminent, manifestly distinguished, and conspicuously bipartisan congressionally appointed panel has produced a report on the state of our nation’s defenses. 

One’s normal response to such a report? Yawn. Eyes glazed over. Get back to me later.

In normal times, that might be reasonable. But as Orwell famously said, “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

The good news is that the intelligent men and women of the National Defense Panel have done their duty, and have done it admirably (you can read their full report at The panel was co-chaired by William Perry, secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, and by General John Abizaid, CENTCOM commander from 2003-2007. Joining them were the undersecretaries of defense for policy under Presidents Bush (Eric Edelman) and Obama (Michèle Flournoy), a former Democratic congressman (Jim Marshall) and a former Republican senator (James Talent), and four retired general officers, including Admiral James “Hoss” Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bush and Obama.

These worthies have produced a compelling report that restates what should be obvious. It lays the evidence out clearly and soberly, and in a way that’s intelligible to the nonexperts among us. It’s the product of serious people addressing an important subject.

In evaluating the threats the United States faces, the panel finds that because of the “scale and sophistication” of China’s rapid military buildup, “the balance of power in the Western Pacific is changing in a way unfavorable to the United States.” The panel worries that “a war on the Korean peninsula or an internal collapse of the North Korean regime” is a “plausible contingency,” and would be “most stressing” to the armed forces. The panel also concludes that “the threat of Islamic terrorism is higher today than it was on September 10, 2001.”

All this and more makes for a challenging threat environment, to say the least. Are we prepared to deal with it? No: “If a force sized at the BUR [Bottom-Up Review] levels was necessary twenty years ago, when the world was much more stable and less risky, that is powerful evidence that the substantially smaller force of today, much less the QDR [the latest Quadrennial Defense Review produced by the Obama administration] or sequestration force, is too small.” Indeed, “given proliferating security threats, any reasonable review will conclude that the Navy and Air Force should be larger than they are today, and that the QDR’s contemplated reduction in active Army end strength goes too far.”

Indeed, “the severe budget cuts of the last several years have presented the Department with a choice between needed capacity and needed capability—that is, between reducing a force that is already too small and cutting the modernization programs that will make the force more effective and less vulnerable.” Worse, “in the current budgetary environment, the choice before the Department is really no choice at all; the existing baseline will fully support neither the capability nor the capacity that the Department needs.”

What does this imply for funding? The report calls for an emergency appropriation of funds by Congress for the military “to remedy the short-term readiness crisis that already exists.” The panel acknowledges that “the bill will not be small, but the longer readiness is allowed to deteriorate, the more money will be required to restore it.”

In addition to funds to deal with the immediate crisis in readiness, the report calls for a “return as soon as possible” to “at least the funding baseline” proposed three years ago for the fiscal year 2012 defense budget. According to the panel, that budget, submitted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “represents the last time the Department was permitted to engage in the standard process of analyzing threats, estimating needs and proposing a resource baseline that would permit it to carry out the national military strategy.”

The panel judges that “the reductions since then have been imposed with no analysis of their impact on short or long-term readiness” and believes “it highly likely, given the events of the last three years, that the Gates proposed fiscal 2012 baseline budget will not be adequate to prepare the Defense Department for the challenges ahead. But it is the minimum required to reverse course and set the military on a more stable footing.” Such a minimally acceptable budget would imply an increase of about $100 billion a year over the next decade above the current defense budget baseline. Put otherwise, we need something like a 20 percent increase in defense spending.

This is not because the panel is enamored of performing heroic tasks abroad. It’s simply because “today the Department is facing major readiness shortfalls that will, absent a decisive reversal of course, create the possibility of a hollow force that loses its best people, underfunds procurement, and shortchanges innovation. The fact that each service is experiencing degradations in so many areas at once is especially troubling at a time of growing security challenges.”

The National Defense Panel’s report is in no way alarmist. But it is surely alarming. Have we sunk to such a depth that, having received this report, we will choose to close our ears, avert our eyes, and shirk our duty?

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