The Wall Street Journal has a must-read report today on the state of our aging military. A sample: “The U.S. military is aging, and fast. Air Force planes, on average, are the oldest in the history of that branch of the armed services. . . . Planned retirements mean the Navy has fewer ships today than it had on Sept. 11, 2001 — 284 now, 314 then.”As the report notes, even President Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, argues that it’s time for an upgrade. And, as the report observes, “The cost for all that could reach tens of billions of dollars with the fix-it coming just as federal budget pressures reach a peak. Washington’s debt-reduction plan calls for cutting $350 billion for the Pentagon’s projected budget over the next 10 years. If lawmakers fail to agree on further savings, the agreement calls for an additional $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to federal spending, half of them from the military.”
John Noonan, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee headed by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), told me this morning that the president’s entire approach to defense spending is wrong. “We want to get away from doing math instead of sound strategic planning. We have to reconstitute our force after a decade of fighting. We have to find replacements for antiquated systems that were built during the Reagan years. We have to keep terrorists on the defensive, we have to help keep avenues of commerce open and free, so that the globalized economy works.”
The problem is of course a bipartisan one. Republican leaders agreed to the “trigger” that could decimate national security funding if the supercommittee doesn’t reach a deal. The GOP presidential debates have essentially ignored national security. With the exception of brief references in his announcement Texas Gov. Rick Perry has not addressed national security at great length, despite the fact he is the sole candidate with military experience. Mitt Romney has been more forthcoming, both in his Veterans of Foreign Wars speech and in his book, but has not yet given a full explanation of his views on defense spending.
As a person familiar with the Perry campaign told me this morning, the lack of attention to national security matters is a “fact” of the campaign, which is largely focused on domestic issues. That’s true, but the candidates, if they hope to go toe-to-toe with an incumbent president, would be well advised to flesh out their positions and give voters assurance that they understand and are prepared to deal with our defense funding not as a number on a balance sheet but as a function of our national security needs. The worry for those concerned about national security funding is that the Republican nominee will simply go with the flow on Capitol Hill, allowing both parties to slash away at defense spending. The serious contenders should quickly disabuse the public of that notion.