Will the world be more dangerous for the United States after American troops are withdrawn from Iraq by the end of this year and Afghanistan by 2014?
You would think so, after reading transcripts or listening to a series of House Armed Services Committee hearings over the past two weeks where senior Pentagon officials and military flag officers, encouraged by panel members, sought to illustrate the dangers that would appear should Defense Department budget cuts over the next 10 years exceed the $465 billion now fixed in law.
There is a long history of Defense Department officials and their Capitol Hill supporters at budget-crunch time talking about new threats. It makes me wonder what facts back up their current claims.
A hearing on Thursday with the not-so-subtle title “A Day Without Seapower and Projection Forces” is a good place to start. Testifying for the Navy was Vice Adm. Bruce Clingan, the deputy chief of naval operations. He picked a single day, March 19, calling it “representative of the daily impact” the Navy has on achieving U.S. “strategic imperatives and protecting our national interests.”
First, let’s hope March 19 does not represent a “representative” day in our future. More about that later.
Clingan began with the two ongoing wars that saw 8,000 sailors, including 1,400 reservists, on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq that day performing many tasks, including detainee operations, training locals and providing combat support. An additional 13,000 sailors were aboard the carrier USS Enterprise and the vessels that support it, as its air wing carried out missions over Afghanistan. There was also the carrier USS Carl Vinson heading toward Dubai and the port of Jebel Ali for maintenance after a month of support in Afghanistan. Within a week it was due to support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
From air bases in the Persian Gulf area, land-based Navy P-3 aircraft also conducted intelligence, surveillance and maritime patrol missions over Iraq and Afghanistan while similar Navy aircraft conducted such missions, both manned and unmanned, in other parts of the world including Somalia and Yemen.
March 19 was also the day the United States began its attacks on Libya to enforce the no-fly zone against Moammar Gaddafi’s forces. Clingan described the Navy launching 122 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two surface ships and three submarines that had moved into the area from forward bases (meaning outside the United States), along with the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship carrying helicopters and Harrier jets.
In the Asia-Pacific region, another carrier strike group and an expeditionary strike group were maneuvering off North Korea — in an operation called Foal Eagle. It was a combined exercise with South Korea that involved massive ground, air and naval drills designed to show Pyongyang that belligerent acts could invite immediate responses, according to Clingan.
On that same day, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its associated cruiser, destroyer and a support ship were diverted from sailing toward Afghanistan to aid rescue operations in Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. At the same time, a four-ship amphibious-ready group was heading to Japan from its Okinawa base.
Off the Horn of Africa, six Navy ships were working with allies in anti-piracy operations, while the guided-missile frigate USS Doyle was engaged in counter-drug activities along with Navy Hawkeye aircraft in support of the Florida-based U.S. Southern Command.
In other parts of the world, 23 Navy submarines, including at least two with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, were carrying on patrols “vital to national security,” Clingan said. Also deployed were four carrier strike groups, three amphibious-ready groups, plus 23 other surface combatant ships.
Among the latter were the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey in the Mediterranean as part of the new missile defense system for Europe and the destroyer USS Stout, which supports missile defense for Israel. Three other destroyers were providing missile defense for Japan and the United States.
In the Arctic Ocean that day, two U.S. submarines were exercising with Canadian and British units, while Seabees were drilling water wells in Ethiopia and building schools in Djibouti.
On March 19, other Navy ships were involved in “partnership” activities, according to Clingan. The amphibious dock ship USS Cleveland was in the South Pacific while another in the class, the USS Oak Hill, was in the Caribbean. Also in the Caribbean, the Mercy hospital ship USNS Comfort was touring to provide medical care to South American countries. The frigate USS Robert G. Bradley was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, conducting training events as part of African partnership programs.
“In total, 152 of the Navy’s 288 battle force ships were underway or forward-deployed on March 19,” Clingan said, adding that the service was operating “at an unsustainable level.”
But wait a minute. Does Clingan really want to call March 19 typical, with the United States fighting two wars, beginning another, and providing assistance to a unique natural disaster in Japan? Or is he suggesting that more than two heavy military engagements at one time, plus a major foreign natural disaster will be the norm? And what about those other 136 ships?
The old traditional Defense Department core budget was designed to handle two major foreign engagements, yet when the George W. Bush administration sent forces into Afghanistan and then Iraq, a whole new budget was created. More than $1 trillion has been spent to fight those wars without the president, neither Bush nor Obama, seeking a war tax.
I suggest we go back to a reasonable core Defense Department budget. And if a president sends U.S. forces into an extended fight, whether it is another Iraq or Libya or Somalia, he or she should be forced immediately to seek congressional approval — not for sending the forces as sought by the ineffective War Powers Act, but rather for the additional funds needed to pay for the White House-initiated operation.