Budget cuts should not weaken security

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In 2011, I presented a question to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a budget hearing with the House Armed Services Committee. To get to zero threat, I asked, what would be the annual cost of the defense budget — $1 trillion, $2 trillion or more?

Gates scoffed. He responded with no estimate and made no attempt to justify why such a figure could be difficult to determine. Instead, he said that, “nobody lives in that world” and dismissed the question on the basis that America is “never going to get to zero threat.”

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True. Threats will always exist, and it is near impossible to predict the full extent of global security threats that could emerge years from now. Three years ago, Gates could not have predicted the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) advance in Iraq or even the situation in the Ukraine.

In one sense, the world is different than it was three years ago. In another, not much has changed: China, Iran and North Korea are no less dangerous; the terrorist threat still exists; and cyber intrusions are a regular occurrence.

Regardless of the lens through which the world is viewed, there is one single and indistinguishable similarity: The U.S. will continue to face an array of global threats.

Will China halt its militarization? No. Will North Korea suddenly change course? Don’t count on it. Will Iran acknowledge it is better to be in the good graces of the international community than pursue its nuclear ambitions? Wishful thinking. And will terrorism at the hands of Islamic radicals suddenly wane because that is what Americans want? Not a chance.

Achieving zero threat is not feasible, clearly. That is not to say, however, that the simple act of fully assessing risk should be avoided.

Determining America’s national security priorities should not be treated as a budget-driven exercise, as is currently the case year-in and year-out. In other words, our strategic objectives are adjusted and condensed to conform to the availability of defense dollars. More appropriately, determining strategic goals should be the first order of business, ahead of budgetary goals. Not only is it a more effective way to determine costs over the long term, it allows for better prioritization.

America will always need a Navy, but the size of the naval fleet matters for force projection. Right now, the Navy is more than 200 ships undersized. Naval officials are on record that a fleet of over 500 ships is needed to meet global mission requirements. 

America will always need an Army and Marine Corps, but resources are stretched dangerously thin and end strength is declining. Top military brass has repeatedly warned about the encroaching difficulty and potential inability of the Army and the Marine Corps to engage on more than a single front.

And America will be relying even more on air power, while the broader inventory of airframes is both shrinking and aging. American air power is sure to remain a ferocious and trustworthy weapon, regardless. It’s the ground lost to China and other nations in development and technological advancement that is most worrisome.

Each of these illustrates choices and trade-offs. Do we choose more ships over bombers? How about fighter aircraft? How many soldiers and Marines are enough to meet full operational demands in two theaters or three theaters? To know for certain, it helps to understand the match between threats and cost.  

There are many reasons for a strong national defense. Budget cuts should not create gaping holes in U.S. security, as long as they are done with precision and forethought. The across-the-board cuts brought on by sequestration are creating long-term consequences that, over the remaining years of reductions mandated by law, could be disastrous. So too is the notion that assessing the full scale of risk, in order to put in proper perspective both current and future defense needs, is illogical.

The improbability of achieving zero threat cannot be mistaken for the necessity to understand what that takes. Maybe once the concept is fully grasped, we can begin the process of developing smarter budgets that account for current and long-term threats and guarantee the U.S. military is always at its most prepared and effective.


Hunter has represented California’s 52nd Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Armed Services; the Education and the Workforce; and the Transportation and Infrastructure committees. He is also a Marine veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.