Leon Panetta’s nightmare is today's national security crisis

Leon Panetta’s nightmare is today's national security crisis
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Responding to a request from Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: GOP lawmaker takes unannounced trip to Syria | Taliban leader pens New York Times op-ed on peace talks | Cheney blasts paper for publishing op-ed GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Meghan McCain after Gaetz says Trump should pardon Roger Stone: 'Oh come on' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Barr to attend Senate GOP lunch on Tuesday GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria MORE (R-S.C.), then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta outlined, in the most dire terms, the consequences of Congress’s failure to reach an agreement on deficit reduction.

In a letter dated Nov. 14, 2011, Panetta asserted that the absence of an agreement would trigger the imposition of mandatory spending ceilings for the ensuing decade, in accordance with the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). He argued that, should the maximum sequestration come into force, the total cut to the Department of Defense (DOD) budget “will rise to about $1 trillion compared with the FY 2012 plan.”


Panetta added that “the impact of these cuts would be devastating for the Department” and that, after 10 years, “we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

Thanks to a series of two-year congressional spending agreements, Defense budgets exceeded the mandated BCA ceilings. Yet, as the recently issued report of the National Defense Strategy makes abundantly clear, Panetta’s fears have, for the most part, been realized: At 483,000 troops, the Army today is indeed at its lowest force levels since 1940; the Navy’s 288 ships are the lowest since 1915, and the Air Force is the smallest ever.

Moreover, whereas Panetta wrote his letter when the primary focus of America’s defense posture was the war on terror, the United States once again faces threats from major powers — Russia and China — as well as from a nuclear North Korea, a hostile Iran, and still-lethal terrorist groups of various stripes.

The congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission’s report echoes and updates Panetta’s letter. It applauds the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy for assigning priority to the new alignment of threats to American interests, allies and friends worldwide. Nevertheless, it is critical of the administration’s failure to fund defense budget increases to the level of 4 percent to 5 percent of Gross Domestic Product, an amount equal to at least $800 billion.

In fact, while the report was at the printer, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Gov. Ron DeSantis more popular in Florida than Trump Sotomayor accuses Supreme Court of bias in favor of Trump administration MORE decided to reduce the defense budget from a planned $733 billion to $700 billion, a sum that itself could be realized only if Congress reached another bridging agreement to avoid the BCA ceiling of $576 billion.

Moreover, Congressman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Dem senator met with Iranian foreign minister | Meeting draws criticism from right | Lawmakers push back at Pentagon funding for wall Lawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Top Armed Services Republican: Pentagon using .8B on border wall 'requires Congress to take action' MORE (D-Wash.), the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has indicated that he may support even steeper reductions in defense spending. With the Democrats in a far stronger negotiating position when talks begin to avoid another sequester, the likelihood that defense spending will equal, much less exceed, the president’s recommended level is minimal at best.


Can it therefore be argued that the National Defense Strategy Commission was simply whistling in the wind when it recommended increases in spending that had virtually no chance of being realized, even before Trump’s pronouncement and the outcome of the midterm elections? Not necessarily. In articulating the rationale for those increases, the commission has identified serious shortfalls in the way the DOD goes about its business. Indeed, the commission report focuses on far more troubling matters than defense spending, beginning with its above-noted identification not only of China but — President Trump’s seeming affection for Vladimir Putin notwithstanding — also of Russia as the leading threats to American national security.

The commission rightly notes that the Defense Department has yet fully to structure those forces it does have to address threats from Russia and China. Moreover, it has not at all made clear “how it intends to defeat major power rivals in competition and war.”

Indeed, the report emphasizes that neither DOD nor the government as a whole has come to grips with the imperative to develop meaningful responses to what the commission terms “competitions short of war,” such as China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, or Russia’s manipulation of Western elections and its employment of so-called “little green men” to the seize the territories of its neighbors.

These imperatives are not simply matters of money; they require foresight, strategic thinking, and a clear assessment of proper American responses to threats that show no sign of diminishing any time soon. 

The commission report points to longstanding shortcomings in defense management and acquisition that are in urgent need of overhaul. These include the Defense Department’s elephantine acquisition system and its inability to derive maximum benefit from America’s non-defense industrial base; the persistence of mobility shortfalls; the lack of sufficient coherence in its space and cyber programs; and the military’s dominance of decision-making in DOD as a result of an imbalance in the civil-military management of the department.

The commission has warned that the nation faces a national security “crisis.” Some might argue that it is crying wolf, that the United States still has the world’s strongest, most capable military. Yet, with current force levels reflecting those that prompted Leon Panetta’s anguished letter to the Senate seven years ago — and with the threats America now faces far more serious than those it confronted when Panetta served as President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEx-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community Five takeaways from new fundraising reports for 2020 Democrats Obama sends birthday wishes to John Lewis: 'Thanks for making good trouble' MORE’s defense secretary — it is not unreasonable to postulate that if America’s security is not yet in crisis, it soon will be 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.