Our military needs support today to prepare for the battles of tomorrow
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The new fiscal year is approaching rapidly. Will Congress act in a timely fashion to give U.S. military the resources they desperately need to meet demand?

The early signs were encouraging. In marking up their authorization bills, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees added funds to President Trump’s 2018 defense budget request. But several obstacles stand in the way of Congress making good on its pledges.

When lawmakers return on Sept. 5 from their month-long recess, they will have only 12 legislative days before the nation reaches its debt limit and requires new spending bills to avert a partial government shutdown. Congressional leaders have other pressing priorities as well. They range from reforming the tax code to reauthorizing flood insurance and children’s health programs. With so much to do, and so little time, something’s gotta give. 

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The Budget Control Act of 2011 presents another obstacle. It set ceilings on defense spending, and the ceiling for fiscal 2018 is below even what President Trump proposed. Emergency war funding, referred to as overseas contingency operations (OCO), might offer an interim solution, but it’s unknown how Congress and the Office of Management and Budget would react to a proposal for a large OCO increase.

 

This has led some on Capitol Hill to predict that the best the Pentagon can hope for from Congress is a continuing resolution — possibly lasting all of 2018 — that would essentially freeze defense funding at 2017 levels. For our nation’s security, that is an unacceptable outcome. The U.S. military is in a severely weakened state.

Every indicator reflects dangerously low levels of readiness across our military. Reduced flying hours, shortages of pilots, fewer trained and ready ground troops, aged naval equipment, depleted supplies of missiles… Everywhere you look there are glaring signs that our military has been under-resourced and over-used for years.

It’s a problem with fatal consequences. We don’t yet know whether a lack of training contributed to this year’s spate of naval accidents in the Pacific, including the recent collision of the USS John S. McCain with a tanker that left 10 sailors dead. But junior naval officers have openly worried about the dangers inherent in a force straining to maintain the usual amount of U.S. maritime presence with significantly fewer ships, sailors, and time than in the past. Recent military aircraft accidents have raised similar concerns.

In public testimony, our military leaders walk a tightrope when discussing the challenges they face. They must avoid giving America’s adversaries the idea that the U.S. military is weakened. In private, however they tell a starker truth. Members of Congress frequently leave these private briefings ashen-faced, shaken by the extent of our military’s degradation. Budget cuts over the past several years have necessitated substantial reductions in our forces. The military services today are smaller than at any time since the start of World War II. Yet their commitments grow larger by the day.

This might be more tolerable if the world was becoming a safer place, but it isn’t. Every day brings more challenging news, be it reports about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, China’s advance into the South China Sea, Kim Jong Un’s nuclear missile-rattling or Russia’s latest attempt to intimidate our allies. Clearly, safeguarding America’s interests requires a strong military, capable of meeting more than one challenge at a time, now and for the foreseeable future.

Every day that passes without the additional resources needed to rebuild our military increases risk. In war, time matters. Often the outcome of battles and even wars is decided by the timely arrival of new capabilities or the greater size of the winning force. The most decisive naval battle of the Civil War was won by the last minute arrival of a new ironclad, the USS Monitor, direct from sea trials.

By delaying additional defense funding, until later in 2018 or potentially even until fiscal year 2019, Congress puts those in uniform at greater risk of increased casualties or defeat on a future battlefield. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, there are competing priorities.

And yes, the Budget Control Act has to modified in order to allow defense needs to be appropriately met. No one said it was going to be easy. But Congress’s overarching obligation is to assure the adequate defense of the nation. By all accounts, our military needs their immediate support. Lawmakers must act now.

Thomas W. Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general, is director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.