No doubt one of the pleasures of being Secretary of Defense is to be a commencement speaker at one of this nation’s military academies. Whether at West Point, Annapolis or Colorado Springs, it is a chance to speak to and perhaps make a lasting impression on a generation of military officers. Making this moment all the more important is the certainty that some of these new graduates will soon be in combat in Afghanistan.
This year, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke to the midshipmen of the Naval Academy. In his remarks, he laid a particularly important challenge on the shoulders of these young men and women. “America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots. One of the key projects that your generation will have to face is sustaining and enhancing American strength across the great maritime region of the Pacific.” The Secretary went on to assert that this nation’s future prosperity and security would be a consequence of its ability to maintain peace and security across a global arc that stretched from South Asia and the Indian Ocean to East Asia and the Western Pacific. Since the expanse he defined is mostly water, this meant a growing role for naval power. “One of your great challenges as an officer in the Navy will be to ensure the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region for the 21st Century.” Heady words, indeed, for a newly-commissioned Navy ensign or Marine Corps second lieutenant.
But that was not the end of the Secretary’s charge to the class of 2012. While focusing on the Asia-Pacific region, the future military will have to finish out the current conflict in Afghanistan, maintain security in the Middle East as well as strengthen traditional alliances and global partnerships. In addition, there were the ongoing challenges posed by violent extremism both abroad and against the homeland, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the destabilizing behavior of Iran and North Korea, military modernization across the Asia-Pacific, turmoil in the Middle East, piracy on the high seas and the growing threat of cyber attacks. Oh, and one more thing. While doing all the above, this same military must transform itself into one that is agile, flexible, deployable, technologically advanced and able to confront aggression and defeat any opponent “anytime and anywhere.”
Then the Secretary of Defense threw in the zinger: “All of this coming at a time of increasing budget challenges here at home.” So how is all this supposed to work? These young officers were being asked to patrol half the world’s surface, deal with a dozen different challenges and threats, absorb and learn to use brand new technologies and maintain a superior warfighting capability all while defense budgets are declining. Based on current shipbuilding plans, the size of the U.S. Navy is projected to fall significantly below the desired number of 313 ships. The Marine Corps will not get the number of large amphibious warfare vessels it believes necessary to fulfill its global responsibilities. In essence, Panetta was asking the next generation of military leaders to do a lot more with a lot less.
The logic of the Secretary’s remarks would suggest a very different defense program than what he has proposed. If anything, this nation needs more not fewer surface combatants, nuclear attack submarines and large deck amphibious warfare vessels. Perhaps we should even add an aircraft carrier or two to the total. If we are going to ask more of our Navy and Marine Corps we need to give them more too.
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