The Pentagon’s top civilian and top military leader recently sounded warnings that the nation risks a steep decline in military readiness if spending priorities are not rapidly reset for a postwar era.
Though they came at it from different angles, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Congress and the country must be willing to allow for actions previously deemed unthinkable, particularly when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging. That includes everything from cutting end strength to hiking fees for military health care.
Making his case last week in a letter to Congress, Hagel starkly outlined how cutting $52 billion more from defense in 2014 — and again in each of the next eight years under sequestration — will wreck U.S. combat capabilities.
Readiness is already decaying. Navy ships have been pulled from deployment rotations, Air Force squadrons have been grounded, maintenance has been postponed and equipment programs cut.
Hagel did engage in some typical Washington hyperbole, warning that if the cuts were allowed to take effect, the Pentagon might have to halt all accessions, promotions and permanent change-of-station moves. That’s an empty threat; it’s just not going to happen.
Hagel is correct in saying that if left unchecked, the nation is on a course to hollow out its military and he rightly presses lawmakers to set aside parochial interests and grant the Pentagon authority and flexibility to make cuts to personnel spending and unnecessary programs and bases.
Dempsey, in a July 3 opinion piece for The Washington Post, urged broader acceptance of “modest reforms to pay and compensation” for troops and veterans by portraying those who served in recent years as not all heroes nor all victims.
That’s a remarkably candid, yet jarring, declaration after the brass, lawmakers and the public spent more than a decade lionizing the troops and lavishing them with hefty pay raises and increasingly generous benefits.
That was natural and necessary when wars were raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that was the price of enlisting volunteers to deploy to battle time and again, sacrificing life and limb and ensuring long separations from their families.
But as Dempsey noted, troops are volunteers who stepped forward to serve, much as cops, teachers, firefighters and others serve their civilian communities.
Now, the bill has come fully due for two unfunded wars, even as the country is struggling to recover from deep economic distress. All must share in the pain; all must share in the sacrifice to ensure combat readiness and viable military careers for future generations.
Everything should be on the table for consideration: Base closures and realignment of installations that serve only to provide votes for lawmakers. The $46-billion-a-year military retirement system not designed for today’s 80-year life spans. A $1.4 billion commissary system that has expanded well beyond original intent of providing goods in remote military locations to include stores in thriving metro areas where there are other discount shopping options. Military career tracks that promise pensions after 20 years of service but nothing for exiting earlier. Weapons programs that the Pentagon does not want or need.
Even in the increasingly unlikely event that Congress reaches a budget agreement to avoid further sequester cuts, defense spending will be seriously curtailed for years to come. Hagel and Dempsey are right and responsible in seeking shared sacrifice for the greater benefit of all.