Defense has faded from the nation’s political consciousness. Despite a shooting war in Afghanistan, myriad evolving threats to US interests worldwide, and critical strategic and financial questions for the Pentagon, defense was essentially a nonissue in last fall’s elections.
Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney devoted significant attention to defense in the Presidential campaign. It was also marginal in the vast majority of last year’s House and Senate races.
This is partly to be expected. More than 11 years after the 9/11 terror attacks, the public is tired of hearing about war. In a general sense, America has moved on, and politicians are giving the public what it wants.
The nation’s financial problems are now generating more attention. Recent months have been dominated by debates over tax rates, entitlement spending, and the threat of sequestration.
Yes, the nation must get its runaway debt under control, because the United States risks losing its economic strength, military power, and global influence if the deficit continues to balloon. But defense has fallen so far off the political scope that spending decisions made this year could cause long-term damage.
The military and its equipment are worn down by more than a decade of war. Not only does DOD need to execute a safe and effective drawdown in Afghanistan, it must reconstitute its worn-out equipment and reposture itself to address the types of threats most likely to threaten US interests in the future. None of this can be done carelessly or on the cheap.
Unfortunately, many of the Pentagon’s most prominent supporters in the legislative branch are leaving office. Love them or hate them, the list of defense experts who will not be part of the next Congress is impressive in both its quantity and quality.
In the Senate, the Armed Services committee loses three veteran defense experts, each retiring this month: Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), and Jim Webb (D-Va.). Term limits also mean Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) will surrender his leadership post. The Senate defense appropriations subcommittee will say goodbye to Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), who is retiring. The Senate Foreign Relations committee loses Ranking Member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who lost his re-election bid in the primary.
On the House side, the appropriations defense subcommittee will part with four members, including Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). The House Armed Services Committee is losing 10 members from its roster. This turnover includes prominent defense supporters such as Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.).
No lawmaker is irreplaceable, of course, but very few won re-election on the strength of their support for defense. Lawmakers now need to do what is best for the nation. As DOD shifts resources away from what was needed to fight grinding ground wars with largely uncontested control of space and the skies, the Air Force needs support.
"As chairman of this committee I have a responsibility that is national," noted HASC Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon in a meeting with defense reporters last summer. "I’m still doing the work for people in my district, and we’re still passing legislation, working on legislation that helps my district, but this is my focus."
McKeon managed to win re-election despite the extraordinary admission that he had become, in essence, a Washington insider.
McKeon, SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and other legislative leaders must inspire other lawmakers to take this sort of national view and not narrowly fixate on the jobs the military and defense industry can bring.
Part of the challenge will be to properly manage an inevitable decline in military spending. The US needs less ground-centric spending going forward.
"The way President Obama has put it was, ‘Give me fewer Iraqi Freedoms and more Desert Storms," said Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nov. 27. "Go in … and get the job done. Don’t end up there for 10 years trying to do nation building," he continued. "We’re just not going to be allowed to do that. We can’t afford it."
Tough decisions need to be made. "Every trade group, special interest, and corporate lobbyist is up on Capitol Hill clamoring that Congress solve the problem, avoid the fiscal cliff, and not default to sequestration—but don’t touch my budgets," said David Langstaff, CEO of the defense contractor TASC, in a December speech. "We can’t have it both ways," he said.
The nation’s strategic rebalance toward the Pacific region and broader Middle East reflects where future interests and challenges lie. These regions require different military capabilities from those mastered in combat this past decade. Some military accounts will have to be cut to pay for what is necessary for the future. Priorities are key.
The aircraft, space systems, and cyber warfare capabilities needed to prevail in anti-access environments and across vast distances call for serious investment in this tough budget environment. Nations such as China, North Korea, Syria, and Iran are very different from Iraq or Afghanistan. They have hardened defenses and substantial anti-aircraft systems. Chinese and Iranian defenses may get even more formidable over time.
Hopefully the US will never have to fight any of those nations, but if it does, airpower can help keep the US out of the deadly force-on-force battles that have characterized Afghanistan since 2002 and Iraq since 2004.
Given the current lack of interest in defense outside of military circles, the new blood on the key Hill committees must step up, for the good of the nation. New members must become effective advocates for defense and find ways to make national security issues resonate with the public. These problems aren’t going away.
When money is tight, the Pentagon budget is often looked at as a "discretionary" account, ripe for raiding. Who will advocate for national security on Capitol Hill? Who will stand for defense?
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