- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The United States and its allies are making enormous progress in Iraq. What was once widely reported as a catastrophic failure is now receiving accolades from individuals and organizations on both sides of the political aisle.

While the nation should be proud of its military for its professionalism, dedication and sacrifice, we must fully understand that the threat to America remains strong and should refrain from repeating the mistakes of the 1990s when a substantial “peace dividend” was levied on the Department of Defense (DoD).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many experts expected a significant decrease in military deployments and armed conflicts. Few could imagine the number of contingency operations our forces would conduct during the next 10 years.

Despite this incredible demand, defense cuts were frequent and extreme. The Army was reduced from 18 divisions during Desert Storm to 10, the Air Force from 37 tactical air wings to 20, and the Navy from 568 ships in the late 1980s to a fleet of only 276 today.

In March 2003, the military was tasked to open a second front on the global war on terrorism. As progress in Iraq developed slower than planned, the DoD became strained. The reserve component was forced to transition from a strategic reserve to an operational force despite a long history of underfunding and lack of capital investment and modernization.

The reserve component looked similar to the active force referred to as the “hollow Army” of the 1970s. For example, the Army National Guard was equipped with an average of 60 percent of its requirements. As the war on terrorism was waged, DoD was forced to adopt a “Theater Provided Equipment” program. Simply put, units left their equipment in theater for another arriving unit, and went home without their equipment. This process quickly degraded equipment available for Guard units and had a negative effect on states’ abilities to respond to natural disasters.

Strong national security doesn’t come without a price tag — the president’s fiscal 2009 budget requests $515.4 billion for defense spending. The relative cost is not as overwhelming as one would think. National spending on defense as a percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP) is relatively low. This year’s budget request equals about 3.4 percent of GDP. To put this in perspective, the National Retail Federation estimated 2007 holiday sales to also equal 3.4 percent of GDP.

The president submitted a strong and robust budget that funds many valuable programs for the Defense Department. However, there are still numerous compelling and unfunded requirements. The National Guard and Reserves are short $40 billion in equipment; a majority of the costs associated with the reset and reconstitution of equipment are not addressed in the president’s budget. Ever-rising costs of health care and personnel of the all-volunteer force continue to be a top priority for the DoD and our nation, as we must continue to care for and honor those who serve.

In response to the history of our elected officials imposing a “peace dividend” at the end of major conflicts, I have co-sponsored legislation that instead would bolster our security and ensure consistent funding to sustain modernization and transformation programs critical to the future successes of our national defense:

(1) Congress must act on the proposal, “A Four Percent for Defense of Freedom,” which sets minimum defense spending at 4 percent of our GDP and would send a clear message we are steadfastly committed to this nation’s security. It is imperative for planning, acquisition of new equipment and quality-of-life investments that the DoD receive a predicable budget with consistent, real growth.

(2) We must fund and establish a Response Readiness Corps with personnel capable of assisting nations on stabilization and reconstruction. This organization will enhance State Department capability in nation-building and post-conflict reorganization and free up critical DoD assets now used in these operations.

(3) Finally, we must encourage our partners and allies to build capacity by extending the expiring authorities in the National Defense Authorization Act that allow use of DoD funds to help build the capacity of a foreign country’s national military forces so that country can conduct counter-terrorist operations.

Throughout history, if a nation is perceived as weak on defense, its enemies exploit that opportunity. This risk significantly jumps in the shadow of a “peace dividend” when defense spending is subordinated to nondefense-related activities.

As Congress prepares work on debating the president’s budget and writing the fiscal 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, members must understand the requirement for a long-term commitment to military readiness.

This commitment will require substantial investment in all areas of appropriation to ensure equipment, personnel and health-care challenges are addressed properly.

Jim Saxton, New Jersey Republican, is a ranking member of the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee, and founder and senior member of the House Terrorism and Unconventional Threats Subcommittee. His district includes Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Bases.


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