Nation must stay strong amid rising risks and budget cuts

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The nation’s top military officer told a think tank audience in Washington, D.C., March 18 that while U.S. forces face rising security and financial risks, he offers "a little peace of mind in the context of uncertainty."

Speaking as part of a recurring Persian Gulf Forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed how budget pressures and a force drawdown will affect U.S. military actions in the Gulf region and elsewhere.

The United States faces real danger at a time when resources are in decline, he said.

"At the same time, we are not a nation or a military in decline," the chairman added. "We have it within us to stay strong – to remain a global leader and more important, a reliable partner."

Global risk is on the rise despite an overall decline in violence, Dempsey said.

He added the "probability and consequences of aggression" are going up as a result of two trends: a shift of power to non-state actors and the proliferation of advanced technologies.

"Middleweight militaries now have intercontinental ballistic missiles," he said.

Adding, "Cyber has reached a point where bits and bytes can be as destructive as bullets and bombs. Our homeland is not the sanctuary it once was."

At the same time, defense leaders must recognize that decreasing the national deficit "is, in fact, a national security imperative" and that defense spending will fall, he noted.

Dempsey said sequestration, an across-the-board spending cut that took effect March 1, is "quite simply the most irresponsible way possible to manage the nation’s defense."

"It is actually the antithesis of what we need," he added. "We need budget certainty, time and flexibility. Sequestration compromises our readiness, and it compounds risk."

Sequestration could lead to a security gap, Dempsey said, and it’s also the law.

"I am hopeful – but not all that optimistic – that both its magnitude and its mechanism will be defused in some future budget deal," he said.

Adding, "But in the meantime, we have no choice but to prepare for its full effect – which is, of course, our worst-case scenario."

Likening national security to insurance coverage, Dempsey said what the U.S. military currently offers "may be a little less than what you were used to, but it’s still the best available."

"And it’s going to get better in time," he added. "Here’s where I hope my confidence brings some comfort."

The chairman said he called the service chiefs and combatant commanders together last week to discuss how to "lead through" the effects of current and future cuts.

Dempsey said the chiefs and combatant commanders, like the troops they lead, are "a resolute bunch."

They know, Dempsey said, that "eventually, we come through these periods stronger as a military and as a nation."

With an all-volunteer force, there will be no mass demobilization when the war in Afghanistan ends, he said. The military also is managing an aging inventory, and there will be no "peace dividend" of war funds that can be diverted into other uses.

"We are going to have to find opportunity, though, in the midst of this fiscal crisis," he said.

"We need to seize the moment … to think differently and to be different."

The nation’s military services need "the help of our elected officials to give us the certainty, the flexibility, and the time to make change," he said.

"If we can get the reforms to pay and compensation we need – and we need them – and if we can get rid of weapons and infrastructure that we don’t need, then we can begin to restore the versatility of the joint force at an affordable and sustainable cost," he added.

Meanwhile, budget pressures indicate the defense strategy will need to change, the he said. "We’ll need to relook our assumptions and we’ll need to adjust our ambitions to match our abilities," he added. "That means doing less, but not doing less well."

Diplomacy and development will play a bigger role in U.S. engagement, and partner militaries will need to increase their security responsibilities, Dempsey said.

"Our partners will have to work with us and collaborate with us on accepting a greater share of the risk," he added.

Today’s competing realities bring the challenge of "staying strong in the face of danger with fewer dollars," he explained.

"We will lead our way through this," he said. Conditions aren’t easy, he acknowledged, but nobody who serves in the military or in government ever signed up for anything easy, he said.

"Easy wasn’t part of the job description," he added.

"We’ll get through this," he pledged, "but we’ll get through it mostly because of the application of leadership, thinking, creativity and a commitment to each other."