- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

The aircraft carrier USS Constellation is currently launching combat missions against Iraq, but it is slated to be decommissioned this fall. U.S. forces are advancing into Iraq, are engaged in combat in Afghanistan and the Philippines, are deployed to deter North Korea and are supporting a global war against terrorism. Yet, American military strength continues to decline due to inadequate funding.
The Navy believes 15 carriers are needed to fulfill its missions around the world. But if the Constellation is taken out of service, the fleet will be down to only 11. There is a new carrier under construction, the USS Ronald Reagan, but it will not be ready for deployment until 2005. The Constellation was launched in 1960. It is disconcerting that the United States, the vaunted last Superpower whose global reach depends on naval forces, cannot seem to maintain a fleet even when it has decades to plan ship-replacement schedules. The Navy will decline to 290 warships by 2006, 20 less than the minimum fleet size set in the Bush administration's 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review.
The Navy and Marines are the first responders in a crisis. The Navy had nearly 600 ships in the mid-1980s, including 15 carriers. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark has stated that 375 ships are the minimum needed to meet current threats. A 375-ship fleet would require a build-rate of 12 to 14 ships per year. Even simply maintaining a 300-ship fleet would require 10 new ships a year. The current plan outlined in the fiscal 2004 defense budget averages only 7.6 ships per year for the next five years (2004-2008), a clearly inadequate number.
Under Secretary of Defense Dov Zakheim has called the 2004 proposal a "peacetime budget." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld plans to offer supplemental requests to fund combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the core Pentagon budget does not redress the nearly 40 percent decline in conventional force levels that took place in the 1990s when the country relaxed in a false sense of peace and security.
At the end of the first Gulf war, many valiant combat units came home only to be disbanded. The same may happen again, even though the post-Cold War era has clearly ended. The 21st century has opened with a bang, as the reality of global geopolitics has reasserted itself as it always does. With U.S. forces stretched thin, adversaries are looking for weak points to exploit, tempted by the belief that at some point Washington will run out of ships, troops or money with which to respond to aggression.
[In his recent worldwide threat briefing, CIA Director George Tenet outlined the perilous evolution of a divided and dangerous world, declaring "we have entered a new world of proliferation. … The desire for nuclear weapons is on the upsurge." Biological warfare (BW) and chemical warfare (CW) capabilities are spreading fast as well. "Countries are more and more tightly integrating both their BW and CW production capabilities into apparently legitimate commercial infrastructures, further concealing them from scrutiny." warned Mr. Tenet.
At recent House Armed Services Committee hearings on the budget, chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, questioned the wisdom of further reductions in America's military strength. He noted that the proposed integration of Navy and Marine tactical aircraft squadrons would mean a cut of 497 fighter aircraft, 10 percent of the force, and the disbanding of five squadrons. The planes taken out of service will be the oldest, but production of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, the Navy's most advanced tactical fighter, will also be cut by 88 and not be used to bring the force back up to strength.
The Army will see its procurement budget cut by $1.7 billion, reflecting the cancellation of 24 programs. Mr. Hunter has asked whether "we can afford to abruptly shelve these programs which form the backbone of our current heavy ground combat capability." Without large ground armies, the U.S. can bloody an adversary's nose with air and missile strikes, but cannot wage the kind of decisive warfare that really matters as the history of the confrontation with Iraq has amply demonstrated.
The claim is being made that rather than expand or even maintain, existing military force levels, funds are being reallocated to develop a new generation of weapons that could enter production by the end of the decade. Even if true, the world is moving too fast to indulge in such a strategic pause. The 1990s were a relatively calm decade in the aftermath of the Cold War and could have been used for this kind of modernization and transformation. Instead, the decade was wasted in a "procurement holiday" that saw military force levels drop and the industrial base that sustains them shrink dramatically.
If the political will to rebuild U.S. force levels does not exist in a Republican administration, with majority control of both houses of Congress, at a time when American troops are engaged in combat operations on multiple fronts around the world, when will it exist?
William R. Hawkins is senior fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

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