The new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, gave his first formal press conference today. Sitting alongside Joint Chiefs Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, the Secretary covered a wide range of issues from the impacts of sequestration to growing threats from North Korea and the prospects for U.S military involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Overall, Secretary Hagel acquitted himself well.
The Secretary took several questions on the Administration’s defense responses to North Korea’s increasingly belligerent statements. The tenor of the questions was whether the United States was overreacting by increasing the number of ballistic missile interceptors deployed in Alaska and sending two B-2 bombers over South Korea. In particular, reporters wanted to know if this was a wise expenditure of resources given the challenges facing the Department of Defense as a result of sequestration.
Secretary Hagel, seconded by General Dempsey, made it clear that these decisions were not based on the costs involved. They were taken because of the need to make it absolutely clear to the Pyongyang regime that we would act to defend our friends and interests in the region. Even more important, Secretary Hagel argued waiting until serious threats were fully manifested was a losing game and that it was critical to chart a trajectory towards where the threat was likely to go in order to head it off and, hopefully deter aggression.
In this time of battles over government spending, budget deficits, the ballooning national debt and sequestration it is easy to criticize almost any national security decision on the basis of its cost. This is particularly so when actions are taken, weapons systems procured or forces deployed in anticipation of threats. However, while it is hard to put a price on a threat that doesn’t emerge or an attack that doesn’t take place, there can be no doubt that in most instances the costs of deterring actions are only a fraction of the price of going to war.
But more importantly, national security is not a matter of dollars and cents. Yes, there is always a requirement to match strategy to available resources. But this is not the same as having the meter running every time we deploy a military unit or platform. If this is what sequestration requires, it might be smart to cancel the whole thing.
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