- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Now that the debate over how to reduce the deficit has begun and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has announced his retirement, the Joint Chiefs of Staff soon will find themselves more politically isolated than at any time since the first Clinton administration in terms of their ability to marshal the resources needed to fund our armed forces.

Our military leaders face a daunting challenge: how to fund key modernization programs, particularly in shipbuilding and aviation; maintain aging weapon systems; support an adequate range of research efforts; and fund dramatically increasing personnel costs. As concern over the deficit grows, the chiefs will find few allies in Washington - unless they publicly make the case for a sufficient military budget. Given their silence over the past few years, will they even try?

President Obama’s recent directive to trim $400 billion from defense over the next 12 years - an average of $33 billion per year - makes clear his political priorities and lack of strategic vision. Instead of asking “How much can I cut?” a responsible approach would have started with larger questions: “What is America’s proper role in the world? What are America’s strategic interests? What military capabilities are required to defend those interests? How much do those capabilities cost?”

The president’s $33 billion-per-year spending cut mustn’t be seen as a stand-alone reduction. To the contrary, the Joint Chiefs in early 2008 determined that the annual funding shortfall between the cost of operating, maintaining and properly modernizing our armed forces and the amount appropriated came to $85 billion per year. This gap has been growing steadily since the early 1990s, manifesting itself in deferred maintenance, foregone research, antiquated barracks, delayed or canceled modernization programs, inadequate production rates of critical weapon systems, especially attack submarines, and a painfully insufficient number of troops available to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although Mr. Gates has warned against across-the-board reductions, the president’s spending cuts, on top of the existing annual budget shortfall, would create havoc across the services. Military construction and research would be gutted, but those constitute minor portions of the defense budget. The real money is found elsewhere: Readiness would suffer, as it did during the 1990s, and growth in personnel costs would aggressively crowd out critical modernization programs. Of greatest importance, Mr. Obama’s cuts would make it virtually impossible to fund any meaningful American response to the rapid and nearly comprehensive expansion of China’s naval power.

With the departure of Mr. Gates in a few weeks, the Joint Chiefs face a very difficult decision. The secretary’s Notre Dame speech on Sunday, in which he stated flatly that the defense budget must not be cut, should serve as the opening statement by the Joint Chiefs to publicly explain why the defense budget must remain apart from any deficit reduction plan. But will they? Because Mr. Obama’s call to cut defense spending reportedly surprised even Mr. Gates, it is obvious that the president expects his military leaders to remain silent.

While no one expected the Obama White House to place a high priority on defense, the Joint Chiefs’ silence reinforces the president’s lack of support. Their reluctance to speak also compounds their difficulties on Capitol Hill by denying would-be supporters in Congress of the information and backing needed to successfully advocate for an adequate military budget. Their silence also strengthens the hand of liberals, deficit hawks and isolationists who seek to balance the budget on the backs of our military.

There should be no question of the proper role of the Joint Chiefs in the evolving budgetary debate. National security is the federal government’s primary responsibility. The chiefs are obligated to explain to Congress and the American people the long-term resource requirements of our armed forces - and the strategic implications of long-term underfunding. The situation before the chiefs is one of profound consequence for America - and, if they choose to explain the issue candidly, one that calls for great moral courage.

In his military history of the Korean War, Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, who replaced Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur as commander of U.S. and U.N. forces, wrote that there is never a shortage of physical courage on the battlefield, but that there is often a conspicuous shortage of moral courage when and where it is needed most.

Only the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by virtue of their standing within our society, possess the authority to influence the evolving budget debate to ensure adequate long-term funding for our military. Whether they possess the wisdom and fortitude to successfully influence that debate - or even to try - remains an unanswered question.

Lindsey Neas, a former Army officer, was the chief of staff for the Graham-Talent Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

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