President's Corner: Budget Indecision Leaves a Restless Army

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Our nation’s security and the lives of our soldiers are being put at risk by clinging to the notion that playing political games with military spending is a harmless game of chicken. Our Army is holding on, hoping for a better day, and our troops are restless for a solution.

Because of outdated defense spending limits and the returning threat of sequestration, America’s Army is engaged in budgetary triage, attempting to increase combat readiness while facing inadequate budgets. Instead of having the best-prepared, best-trained and best-equipped fighting force in the world, our Army is finding ways to generate improved combat capabilities that seem to be barely enough to meet immediate demands, with little hope of significant Total Force improvements in the near future.

This “just in time readiness” works only if demands for forces remain modest. But an increasingly perilous world has an expanding number of hot spots that would require immediate and sustained response using Army forces and capabilities, although these assets will be diminished by budget-driven shortfalls in training, staffing and equipment.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way if our nation’s security truly is our highest priority.

Sequestration—automatic budget cuts taking effect if there is no political agreement on spending—was a flawed idea from the beginning. First, it was a mistake to believe the threat of cutting federal spending would be enough to overcome the deep political divide over our nation’s priorities. Second, putting defense spending at risk created a situation where our troops are hurt and our potential adversaries helped by political inaction. In what amounts to a game of budgetary chicken, our Army and the rest of our nation’s national security elements should never have been put on the table.

While budget caps on defense spending were slightly relaxed for two years, this is temporary. We return in 2018 to a situation where we face a world of unrest and increasing deployments with a budget that handcuffs our military and an Army that keeps getting smaller.

We cannot kid ourselves about the impact of a constant downward trend on the ability of any military formation to perform their tasks at maximum effectiveness. Further reductions make for more risk. If faced with multiple crises, an overtaxed Army could face the difficult requirement of disengaging from one commitment to respond to another.

Improving readiness remains difficult because of the combination of declining troop strength and increased operational deployments, but troop morale also is a major factor because having a ready Army requires more than just weapons and training. For that reason, we should tread carefully when taking any steps to reduce that quality of life and the compensation package of our soldiers and their families.

It may be unrealistic to hope for quick and clear budget decisions that could free the Army to chart the right course to reduce national security threats. The best we might hope for is to at least not do anything that makes things even worse. The Army and our nation will be best served by slowing or even stopping further reductions in troop levels until a new national security assessment is done that takes into account the increasing risks we face, and by providing as much money as possible so the Army can accelerate efforts to restore readiness across all components.

The downward manpower trend, combined with scarce dollars for training, make the Army less effective—a simple equation that cannot be denied. Political unwillingness to face up to the real and immediate national security needs of our nation does not diminish the threats. It only puts us all at greater risk.