Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shrinking the Military: It was just a Question of Time

Conservatives have been complaining about President Obama’s economic and social agenda since before he even took office. Alarmed by a series of initiatives dominated by left wing policies and goals, people in the center and on the right have been fighting one program after another. Through all of this turmoil there has been one area where the President has actually enjoyed support, at times even praise, from his Republican opponents. He has generally been doing a good job supporting our military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has, for the most part, been listening to our generals and military planners and has implemented aggressive plans to combat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda on the ground in the Middle East. With the exception of several moves undermining our Missile Defense and Nuclear Deterrent capabilities he has been leaving the military establishment alone. In fact, he has actually increased the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan and expanded the deadly effective Predator drone Program (much to the chagrin of the Democrats).

There have been a few, however, who believed his actions were dictated by necessity and his preoccupation with domestic issues rather than a commitment to supporting or enhancing America’s military might. There has been a scattering of voices warning that his overall intentions were the opposite of his initial actions and that his real agenda was to reduce the size and capabilities of our Defense Department. Those voices were dead right. In a speech to the Navy League, Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid out a grim portrait of where the Administration intends to take us. He spoke of a smaller fleet, one with fewer aircraft carriers, few or no new submarines and a sharply curtailed expeditionary capability for the Marines.

The Secretary told his audience that he did “not foresee any significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions. At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on 3 to 6 billion dollar destroyers, 7 billion dollar submarines, and 11 billion dollar carriers.” He then said that, as the current wars “recede, money will be required to reset the Army and Marine Corps, which have borne the brunt of the conflicts. And there will continue to be long-term – and inviolable – costs associated with taking care of our troops and their families.” Bottom line: no “significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions.”

Gates also gave a clear warning to Marine Commandant General James Conway. Conway said recently that the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) was on track and performing well and remained a core commitment of the Marines as they seek to rebuild their ability to mount major amphibious operations -and the first EFV prototype has been unveiled by the Marines. So Gates asked rhetorically, “what kind of new platform is needed to get large numbers of troops from ship to shore under fire – in other words, the capability provided by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. No doubt, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast. But we have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again – especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?”

After Gates took on the Marines, he moved on to aircraft carriers, perhaps the holiest of holies for the surface Navy. “Our current plan is to have eleven carrier strike groups through 2040. To be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities,” he said. This sound ominously like predictions by some that the Administration was on track to slice the carrier fleet to nine groups and eliminate the EFV.

In case you have not yet gotten the general message that Navy and Marine Corps budgets face the axe, Gates made it explicit. “But, mark my words, the Navy and Marine Corps must be willing to reexamine and question basic assumptions in light of evolving technologies, new threats, and budget realities. We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms – thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets.”

Acknowledging China and its quickly expanding blue water presence, Gates never-the-less laid out arguments that “Potential adversaries are well-aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage – which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race prior to World War I.”

Secretary Gates hammered home just how tough both the budget and congressional environments are, saying, “we have to accept some hard fiscal realities. American taxpayers and the Congress are rightfully worried about the deficit. At the same time, the Department of Defense’s track record as a steward of taxpayer dollars leaves much to be desired.” He failed to mention his responsibility for overseeing that budget. Then he said that he would be addressing “the issues surrounding political will and the defense budget” at a Saturday speech at the Eisenhower library. The halfhearted applause that followed Gates’ speech demonstrated clearly that the Navy, Marine Corps and their friends got the message. The left wing of Congress will be happy to hear that the Obama Administration is planning to reduce the deficit and pay for their social agenda by cutting our military preparedness and further undermining our position as a Super Power.

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