- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

There is no question that the Department of Defense is facing a budget crisis, which, if not managed properly, will have far-reaching consequences for our national security. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, before departing the Pentagon, cautioned repeatedly about a “hollowing out” of our military forces if proposed budget cuts are enacted. The fact of the matter is that with Mr. Gates’ cut of $175 billion plus the $400 billion in additional deductions proposed by the Obama administration, our military forces are already hollowed out. With two ongoing wars, our military has been run hard and put away wet.

Just last year, a bipartisan congressional panel was created to review DoD’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review, led by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley. The panel concluded that “there is a significant and growing gap between the ‘force structure’ of the military - its size and its inventory of equipment - and the missions it will be called on to perform in the future. Instead of cutting the DoD budget, there is an urgent need for recapitalizing and modernizing the weapon and equipment inventory of all services.”

But this sober assessment has fallen on deaf ears in the Obama administration. With the $400 billion already cut from defense by the administration in its first two years, we cannot continue to maintain a military capability second to none. Further, we are ceding our technology edge, which is our force multiplier, to China and Russia. For the first time in modern history, we do not have a next-generation fighter aircraft on the drawing board. However, our global responsibilities have not been lessened. Maintaining our maritime capability is key to our economic growth. Suffice to say our economic prosperity depends on a strong national defense.

In Asia, we cannot ignore China’s unprecedented, rapid modernization and growth of its military forces, which are being specifically tailored to confront the U.S. Navy and Air Force. Nor can we ignore its boisterous and contemptuous attitude toward the United States and its allies with its illegal claims to the South China Sea and its role in spreading nuclear weapon technology.

We cannot overlook the threat posed by a nuclear-equipped, fanatical Iran, which has had a record of continuous aggression against the United States since November 1979. Certainly, the modernization of Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces with the clear objective of achieving hegemony over its various domains must be factored into any threat equation.

In an uncertain world, made more so by an emerging realignment in the Middle East, there will continue to be an increased demand for sea power. U.S. vital interests are tied to a secure maritime environment that places global responsibilities on our naval forces. However, at a July 12 hearing before the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness, Vice Adm. William R. Burke and Vice Adm. Kevin M. McCoy confirmed that the U.S. Navy’s readiness issues are unresolved and most likely will get worse. Adm. McCoy told Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican and the committee chairman, “We’re not good to go right now,” but he said the force has a good plan. With drastic budget cuts looming, I wonder just how good the plan is.

The Navy is now doing the expensive, extended maintenance of its ships that it has long delayed. This is reminiscent of the Carter years when the Navy had endured severe budget cuts. Back then, the Navy had shrunk from more than 900 ships to 477 with 75 ships overdue for major overhaul. With the exception of the ill-fated Littoral Combat Ship, which has no offensive or defensive capability, the Navy we have today consists of 278 ships built during the Reagan administration. Another fact to consider is that we have more flag officers today than we have ships.

Adm. Burke and Adm. McCoy both said that the Navy is stretched thin by the number of forces it must provide to commanders who want more carriers, more aircraft and more submarines than the Navy can deploy. They both warned that today’s operational tempo is “unsustainable” at its current force level. It’s interesting to note that since the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act was enacted in 1986, the number of joint-force combat commands, each with its own joint commands and activities, has exploded. Further, there are 250 Joint Task Forces, each with its own tail and support elements. Joint programs are clearly out of control. It’s been 25 years since Goldwater-Nichols was enacted. Perhaps it is time for it to be reviewed in light of the current budget crisis, as well as the changing threat environment.

Nonetheless, we still need to come to grips with the potentially disastrous outcome of the Budget Control Act of 2011. With the already-deep cuts made in the national-security budget, the Congressional supercommittee needs to be reminded that entitlements and other domestic spending never defeated an enemy. Economic prosperity depends on a strong national defense. Current and future threats make a recognized national-security capability mandated by our Constitution absolutely essential to maintaining our freedom and way of life.

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.