The U.S. military’s tradition of “Can do!” has turned into “Can’t do” as the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a congressional committee Wednesday that continuing budget cuts will leave them unable to meet the Pentagon’s scaled-back goal of winning one war while deterring another. The Army chief of staff warned he might not be able to fight and win a single, solo, conflict.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Pentagon’s mission was to fight and win two major wars at once. The ability to do that was always a close call, and it turned into a charade in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq and had to leave Afghanistan to slowly twist in the wind, as troops and tanks swung into action against Baghdad. “In Afghanistan, we do what we can,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, famously said in 2007. “In Iraq, we do what we must.”
Today’s more realistic Pentagon guidance calls for the U.S. military to fight and beat one enemy, and deter a second (whether the U.S. won the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a separate issue).
Could the U.S. military achieve that more modest goal if the roughly 10% budget cut mandated by the sequester continues, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., asked the four service chiefs at an armed services committee hearing:
Army General Ray Odierno: I believe at full sequestration we cannot meet the defense strategic guidance. In fact, it’s my opinion that we would struggle to even meet one major contingency operation. It depends on assumptions. And I believe some of the assumptions that were made were not good assumptions. They are very unrealistic and very positive assumptions. And for that, they would all have to come true for us to even come close to being able to meet that guidance.
Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert: No, sir. We cannot…
Air Force General Mark Welsh: No, congressman. We cannot…
Marine General James Amos: Congressman, I can from a one MCO [major contingency operation] perspective. But if it’s a one MCO and do something else somewhere else, I cannot. I simply don’t have the depth on the bench. We are going to continue with the rebalancing in the Pacific. That comes at the price of readiness back home. So over time, our readiness back home will be unacceptable. So the answer in both cases is no.
Plainly there’s some scare-mongering afoot here. The nation still spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined. It continues to spend at Cold War levels, when the nation spent a half-century awaiting the balloon to go up, as they used to say, in all-out war with the Soviet Union.
The chiefs’ view is amazing. Assuming it’s true, it says a lot more about how the U.S. spends its money outfitting troops for war than it does about potential foes. It’s a siren call that should inform the nation that it isn’t getting the return on investment — literally, the bang for the buck — that it should be, given the $615 billion it is spending on its armed forces this year.