Two weeks ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey appeared before the House Armed Services Committee to discuss sequestration and the impact it will have upon the armed forces. Amid the bleak details, he posed a critical question to the committee: “What do you want your military to do?”
With sequestration on the verge of cutting a half-trillion dollars from the defense budget, one thing is certain: The scale and scope of security policy options available to the country are bound to decline.
The armed forces do not exist for their own sake; their fundamental mission is to empower top leaders with a broad menu of diverse capabilities. While people often focus on war-fighting tasks, it is important to highlight that sending young Americans into harm’s way should never stand as a goal when alternate means of securing our nation’s objectives are available. This means securing goals via influence — shaping developments in regions of interest, building alliances with like-minded countries, deterring potential aggressors and dissuading enemies. When combat is necessary, forces must be trained, organized and equipped to secure objectives in a decisive, rapid fashion.
Engaging around the world is not an optional activity; it is a necessity. Whether stemming nuclear proliferation, managing the rise of near-peer competitors, ensuring access to key resources or maintaining strategic alliances, top leaders must manage a set of responsibilities that tie directly to existential interests.
Sequestration will degrade our nation’s ability to address these core missions. Canceling deployments, calling off joint exercises and standing down basic operations will curtail our influence around the globe. Problems that could have been addressed proactively instead will fester and escalate. Leaders then will have to decide between ceding key interests or surging underprepared forces into harm’s way and hoping for the best.
Such decisions are far from hypothetical. History is full of examples in which men and women in uniform had to fall back upon the virtues of bravery and sacrifice to fill the void yielded by a lack of preparation. We know the names well: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Schweinfurt, Chosin Reservoir, Thud Ridge, Desert One, etc. We honor the courage displayed in these engagements on an individual level, but we should never endeavor to repeat them when more effective means of attaining goals are available. Lives lost and strategic objectives ceded are not responsible baselines for national security policy.
That is precisely why the cuts driven by sequestration are particularly tragic. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter summarized in recent testimony on Capitol Hill, “All this is purely damage of political gridlock.” America’s global interests stand at risk amid a dearth of bipartisan compromise. At a time when our leaders need to come together for the well-being of the country, they remain divided. This situation is untenable and invites strategic risk of the highest order.
America has existential interests around the globe that demand careful, deliberate attention. The U.S. military provides critical policy options in this domain. Maintaining such capabilities and capacity requires adequate resourcing, not draconian budget cuts netted through a failure of the political system. There comes a point when our men and women in uniform simply cannot do more with less.
With the implementation of sequestration a near certainty, the president and members of Congress really need to reflect upon Gen. Dempsey’s question: “What do you want your military to do?”
Whit Peters was secretary of the Air Force during the Clinton administration. James Roche held the same position in the George W. Bush administration.
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