Late Wednesday night, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) made a fateful and strategic choice. Almost without exception, the committee rejected the Pentagon’s plans to pay for readiness with cuts to force structure. Remaining in the force, at least for now are 11 cruisers and three amphibious warfare ships the Navy wanted to unload. Also saved from the scrapyard was the USS George Washington (CVN 73) which has been awaiting a decision regarding the refueling of its nuclear core. The HASC provided nearly $500 million to begin acquisition of the long lead items associated with the refueling process. With it the Washington can remain in the fleet for another 25 years. The committee also added money for an additional amphibious warfare ship, five EA-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft and nearly 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
These actions came with a cost. In order to protect the 12 Navy ships, the HASC took around $1.4 billion from the operations, maintenance and training accounts. This means there will be less money to ensure that Navy ships are seaworthy, Air Force fighters can take off and Army brigades are adequately trained for combat. The already growing maintenance backlog will increase and the military could face the beginning of a hollow force.
Breaking Defense’s Sydney Freedberg rightly characterized the situation confronting the HASC as “sequestration’s terrible dilemma: a ready force or a large one.” The Obama Administration is leaning in the direction of readiness at the expense of force structure. Not surprisingly, HASC Democrats are supporting this position. Prominent Republican members on the committee have chosen a different path. They have enough experience in matters of force structure and readiness to know that it is always possible to buy readiness. We did it in the Reagan era and again after 9/11. Building up force structure, however, takes much longer. We no longer have the industrial base to rapidly ramp up production of major platforms. Short of national mobilization or a new Cold War, to borrow a phrase from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, we will go to war with the military we have.
This leads me to the true heart of the debate between the HASC Republican majority on the one side and the administration and its HASC Democratic allies on the other. The Republicans believe, although some may be reluctant to say so publicly, that the nation is facing a tide of threats for which the administration’s proposed force structure will be inadequate. This week alone, Russia advanced its plan to dismember Ukraine, China sought to extend its control of the South China Sea, North Korea continued preparations for another nuclear test, Al Qaeda and its affiliates demonstrated that they are not on the run but rather resurgent and Iran continued to prepare for conflict in the Persian Gulf.
The likelihood that the United States will have to fight multiple major theater conflicts (MRCs) at the same time is increasing. Moreover, these won’t be the kind of MRCs planned for after the Cold War. Our prospective adversaries have gone to school on the American way of war. They have been acquiring advanced offensive and defensive capabilities designed to counter longstanding U.S. technological and operational advantages. HASC Republicans understand that the measure of the United States as a superpower is a force structure of sufficient quantity and quality to fight and win these new types of high-end conflicts in multiple theaters.
In addition, we are not going to have years of warning on which to base a buildup of the military. Our ability to predict when, where and why the next war will occur has been lousy. When war comes, we better have the larger force, even if it is not as ready as we would like it to be. Freedberg provides a quote by HASC senior Republican Randy Forbes that is the clearest and most honest statement of this thesis I have ever seen: “I don’t want to have a hollow force, but I’d rather have “a hollow force that I can build back up — because we’ve had to do that before — than [have] a force that I cannot build back up again because it was gone.”
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