Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from California, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
In national security circles, much is made about the importance of military readiness. Readiness is a way of estimating whether our troops are fit to fight; whether we have the manpower, skills, equipment and capabilities necessary to perform, efficiently and effectively, the missions assigned by the commander in chief.
History has taught us, painfully, that when readiness is low, the threat to U.S. national security is high. During the Korean War, the first U.S. Army unit to see combat — Task Force Smith — was ill-equipped, lacking antitank weapons and sufficient ammunition. They endured terrible and unnecessary casualties. During World War II, ill-prepared U.S. forces were rushed into North Africa and paid a horrendous price. Many of the soldiers who perished after being sent into unfair fights should still be with us. These lessons have guided our foreign and defense policy for decades — until recently.
In 2012, U.S. military readiness plummeted — an unprecedented occurrence during wartime. The decline effectively has our troops swirling around the drain, and readiness will plunge further when the full weight of sequestration is realized.
There have been three rounds of defense cuts in the past four years. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the opening salvo during the first year of the Obama administration. His effort was a successful failure: Gates’s reordering of the defense budget produced nearly $300 billion in savings, which was slated to support deployed forces in the Middle East. Instead, most of it was snatched by the Obama White House and used to support domestic priorities. No other federal agency was asked or expected to go through similar housecleaning.
In April 2011, the president proposed cutting the defense budget by nearly half a trillion dollars. Congress acquiesced in order to avert a government shutdown. Although less than 20 percent of the federal budget is spent on our military, half of the cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act came on the backs of our troops.
What was the military forced to do? Rely on further supplemental war funding to keep its head above water. Most of the money authorized for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has gone to our deployed forces. But some of it has gone toward restoring readiness — fixing tanks, repairing ships and resetting equipment damaged in combat — because the base budget isn’t sufficient to keep aging equipment, mostly from the Reagan era, in working condition.
But the White House has snipped this budgetary lifeline. According to senior military leaders’ testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in February, the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 war funding request was short by approximately $12 billion. And this year’s initial submission for war funding was less than that — even as our best fighter squadrons were being grounded, tens of thousands of troops were being forced out of uniform and lines were growing for overdue equipment maintenance. About the same time the Defense Department was issuing furlough notices to nearly 800,000 people, the White House revised its request, slashing the defense budget by an additional $5 billion. Because the president hasn’t publicized his plans for troop levels in Afghanistan, we have to assume that the additional cuts and his accelerated, costly plans for withdrawal will once again force our troops to raid their readiness accounts to cover the cost of carrying out the commander in chief’s combat orders.
If that weren’t enough, sequestration’s additional half-trillion dollars in military cuts might be the proverbial straw.
Where the president is unwilling to act to hold off this readiness catastrophe, the House Armed Services Committee will continue to do its utmost as the full House considers the annual defense bill next week. With Syria, Iran and North Korea; resurgent powers such as Russia and China; and the metastasizing threat of terrorism, we cannot repeat the mistakes of World War II and Korea.
While the committee cannot unilaterally resolve sequestration, we can and will restore the additional $5 billion the president initially proposed — and then took — from the account that funds our forces in Afghanistan and refurbishes our war-torn equipment. We know where to put the money back because the Defense Department submitted a request to temporarily move funds between accounts to preserve readiness, expecting that the funding would be restored — not removed — in the White House budget request.
Make no mistake. This funding is still too low. To reap a peace dividend, you first need peace. Wars are not won nor is peace achieved through half-measures. We have passed 51 straight annual defense bills, all with the express purpose of providing the American people the peace they deserve. We’ll do it again this year, but not without a firm warning: If we do not change course soon, it is our bravest who will pay the price.