At last week’s Air Force Association annual conference, I and other defense analysts were privileged to have a series of conversations with senior Air Force leaders, many of whom are responsible for conducting a wide range of day-to-day operations in complex and at times dangerous parts of the world. They see the evolution of threats to U.S. global interests and the rapid rise of military competitors up close. Every one of these military leaders told the same story of being required to do more with less. This is before sequestration will cut nearly $100 billion from the proposed FY 2016 defense budget. If that happens the impact on U.S. national security will be nothing short of catastrophic. One Air Force officer said it best: If sequestration takes effect the United States will stop being a global superpower and become “a regional power with some global reach.”
Today, the United States faces rising security challenges on no fewer than four continents. Europe faces the specter of a Russia willing to use force to redraw national boundaries, something that has not occurred there for more than 60 years. Moscow has threatened the West with the specter of nuclear attack and claims a special right to protect those it deems to be Russian even if they are citizens of foreign lands. In Asia, North Korea is testing a family of ballistic missiles as it continues to build nuclear weapons. China has asserted unlawfully the right to control large swathes of the international air and sea environment between it and neighboring countries. Its fighter jets have repeatedly “buzzed” U.S. surveillance aircraft operating in international airspace. It is building a modern military that in a few short years could be sufficiently lethal so as to deter U.S. military intervention in the event of Chinese aggression against one of our allies in the region. The explosion in the terrorist/insurgent threat in North Africa and the Middle East now extends all the way from Libya, Mali and northern Nigeria to Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sinai, Gaza, Syria and Iraq. This is an area larger than the continental United States with about as many people. Most recently, the Ebola virus has threatened to become a pandemic in West Africa prompting the Obama Administration to deploy more troops to that part of the world than it has proposed sending to Iraq to train and assist anti-ISIS forces.
The U.S. military is being stretched to the breaking point. Because most of the military is now based in the United States, deploying overseas for ongoing contingencies and crises takes more manpower, equipment and units than if the U.S. were still forward deployed. For every unit overseas, regardless of the mission, there is one that just returned and another preparing but not yet ready to deploy. Critical capabilities such as the U-2 airborne surveillance aircraft have been maxed out, which is ironic since the Pentagon plans to retire the entire fleet in 2016 even though there is not a replacement either in quantity or quality available. The Marine Corps has been forced to deploy a special response unit with V-22s and aerial tankers to a base in Spain because it doesn’t have enough amphibious warfare ships to conduct continuous maritime patrols in the Mediterranean as it once did.
The U.S. military is being forced to shed capacity, meaning people and equipment, that is required if this nation is going to be able to respond to more than one major threat in a region at a time. In addition, as more capacity and responsibility is shifted to the National Guard and Reserves, particularly in the Air Force and Army, the institutional capacities of those services, their ability to train and equip, is deteriorating. The Air Force, for example, cannot train enough pilots to fill today’s billets. This means that in the near future, there will not be enough trained pilots exiting the regular Air Force to fill the needs of the Air National Guard.
The U.S. military is also in serious danger of losing its technological edge. While prospective adversaries such as Russia, North Korea and China are building an array of new strategic and theater nuclear systems, this country is not. The proliferation of advanced air defense systems means that in a future conflict the skies will no longer be safe for the current generation of U.S. fighters and bombers. Let’s not forget that the same Russian surface-to-air missile system that downed MH17 over Ukraine also shot down a number of that country’s military aircraft, including two SU-25s, the equivalent of our A-10s. U.S. and allied missile defenses are insufficient to defeat the massed numbers of hostile ballistic missiles that could be launched against us.
It can be argued that the U.S. is unlikely to face simultaneous conflicts in four regions of the world. But it is already evident that this country’s interests and friends are threatened by well-armed competitors if not outright adversaries in at least three. Can the U.S. afford to become just another regional power? Which region would you choose to ignore when the crises multiply?
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