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Alter Budget to Meet Military Needs

As the House Armed Services Committee proceeds through its deliberations on the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, I take measure of whether Congress, the Department of Defense and the administration have set the military on a true course for a restoration of our military’s combat and contingency readiness. Sadly, I believe the answer is no. Our military still does not have all the equipment and training it needs. Our national security is at a critical juncture, facing a multiplicity of existing and developing threats, while our armed forces are at the mercy of low readiness levels and near-vintage equipment. I use the word juncture to highlight the fact that this downward spiral in preparedness for the next war, contingency, natural disaster or other emergency will soon become irreversible.

Atop the list of priorities for all four branches of service is modernization. Due in large part to a lack of modernization in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the high operational tempo of combat operations overseas since 2002, the useful life of ground and aviation equipment has significantly decreased. Our National Guard, reserve and active duty components frequently operate air, land and sea equipment more than 50 years old. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, units in the United States are suffering from acute readiness shortages, often forced to prepare and train for deployment without all assigned personnel and equipment.

Today, two-thirds of the Army’s combat brigades in the United States are not ready for duty. To fill shortfalls in Army personnel, the Navy and Air Force are supplying more than 20,000 personnel for tasks such as convoy security and logistics support. The Air Force has been flying combat and combat-support missions nonstop in the Middle East for more than 18 years, totaling more than 1 million sorties since Sept. 11, 2001. The Navy is 30 ships short of its 313-ship requirement to meet obligations to the various geographic combatant commanders. After six years as a light infantry combat force, the Marine Corps has lost the ability to fulfill its expeditionary role. Added to the combat readiness issues are trillions of dollars needed to modernize military equipment, and trillions of dollars are simply not available.

The DOD and Congress now face the challenge of pitting modernization (national security for the future) against readiness (national security for today) during the budgeting, authorization and appropriations processes. This is the most critical moment for our national security in my 18-year tenure in Congress. Some political strategists argue that nothing can or should be done to address the dilemma until the next administration takes office. Such thinking is shallow and dangerous.

Too many government leaders have been willing to leave the national security of the United States to what President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” Yet, these leaders are responsible for ensuring the national security. Until all our leaders meet that responsibility, we will not break the vicious cycle of military procurement priorities driven and managed by the companies whose profits are dependent on those decisions. Our national security will continue to decline, and the DOD will ultimately be unable to meet its equipment needs.

It is the job of the DOD to advise the president first and foremost on acquisition programs critical to national security — vehemently if necessary — through a coherent, comprehensive and coordinated budget proposal. It is the job of the president to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the Congress about what is critical to our national security through a sound, geopolitically savvy national security strategy. Ultimately, Congress must have the wisdom and courage to separate immediate and urgent necessities from conceptual blueprints for future weapons.

Fundamental budget reform changes are required of the DOD, the administration and Congress if we’re ever going to be able to meet the equipment needs of the U.S. military.

1. Department of Defense: National Security Now

Future national security is pitted against today’s national security. America does not have enough money to fully accomplish both, period. Like spreading butter too thinly on a slice of bread, the bread (long-term national security or today’s national security) will not be adequately covered. The DOD must make tough decisions about cutting or delaying futuristic programs to accommodate the equipment, readiness and health care needs of today’s military.

2. The Administration: Reroll the Democratization Strategy

The current national security strategy is built on a foundation of “spreading democracy.” Yet with the globalization of the world’s economy, the geopolitics are of inestimable complexity. Literature from geopolitical thinkers warns U.S. policymakers that democratization will not necessarily nor easily lead to a more secure America. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise and is too pervasive to be bridled by one state, even the most powerful in the world. The administration needs to start from scratch on building our national security strategy by abandoning the unipolar, Manifest Destiny-like American ethos and by adopting a more real-world vision.

3. The Congress: Conjugate to Effectively Legislate

The framers of the Constitution purposely made the lawmaking process difficult. Yet in matters of national security, both political parties must reject the intense partisanship that has defined the past two decades, free themselves of those pressures and tendencies, and adopt a politically courageous and collaborative approach to stop the downward spiral in our national security. Congressional leaders on both sides must adopt a different attitude and mentor new Members (15 percent of the110th Congress are freshmen, according to the House’s Office of the Clerk) to inculcate a new ethos.

I listed the organizations in a particular order. Most of the intelligence agencies fall under the Department of Defense, whose budget request traditionally kicks off the Congressional authorization and appropriation processes. Clearly the president relies on the accuracy of the DOD’s budget (in part, a by-product of intelligence) to align the administration’s priorities with the national security strategy. It is monumentally important that the budget proposal from the DOD be as chaff-free as possible if the budget is to ever reach Congress with any credence. I have faith that Congress will some day see the president’s budget as a road map to good governance rather than an ideological statement. If this mark can be achieved, then matters of equipment shortages will no longer be trumped by capricious partisanship or a mad scramble by giant defense corporations for public dollars.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) is chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces.

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