Talk is cheap in Washington when it comes to politicians and the US military

Scott Pittman/U.S. Navy

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, center, exchanges greetings with a U.S. Sailor upon his arrival aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in the Atlantic Ocean Jan. 21, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Next-generation capabilities suffered in terms of research and development #defense

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  • Today, we are three decades away from the Reagan #defense buildup

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  • If Obama and Congress cannot compromise over sequestration, the military will suffer as a result

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Last night, President Obama opened his State of the Union address by referencing the sacrifices and courage of America’s military personnel as they return home from combat. The President’s rhetoric was moving, but unfortunately, words are simply words and have not been fully backed up with action that supports America’s heroes.

A new AEI study takes a look at the past decade of military expenditures. It finds that increased budgets went largely to pay for America’s wars–and not just due to higher endstrength levels or increased maintenance. Next-generation capabilities suffered in terms of research and development, as well as procurement. Of course, it made sense to give our troops the weapons and tools they needed to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the problem is that the weapons we needed in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be the weapons needed to decisively win in future conflicts.

"The military’s arsenal needs modernization with the latest cutting-edge advantages we’ve given those who served honorably in the past."--Mackenzie Eaglen

The last time we saw large defense cuts during the Clinton administration, we were less than a decade removed from the Reagan buildup. U.S. military forces were not 70,000 strong in harms’ way in Afghanistan like today. And, America had a force equipped with the latest generation of equipment that was light years ahead of potential competitors. The Reagan military was on full display during the Gulf war, and the world saw the dividends of high-end American power as Saddam Hussein–at the head of one of the then-largest armies in the world–was ousted from Kuwait less than a week into the ground campaign.

Today, we are three decades removed from the Reagan buildup. The ships, tanks, and aircraft that liberated Kuwait are aging. Planes are falling out of the sky. Every single Navy cruiser has cracks in their hulls. The military’s arsenal needs modernization with the latest cutting-edge advantages we’ve given those who served honorably in the past.

The President has already cut close to $500 billion from the military between “efficiency reductions,” the cancellation of nearly 250 equipment programs, and the $487 billion in spending cuts underway now as part of the debt ceiling deal. An additional half trillion in military spending reductions is currently in store for those in uniform unless Congress and the President act to undue sequestration. Tragically, President Obama has currently threatened to veto just such legislation unless it contains tax hikes. 

If Congress and the President cannot reach a compromise over a sequestration rollback, the military will suffer unduly and uniquely as a result. Until the administration puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to the military, the President’s words will ring hollow. President Obama talked a great game about supporting the troops last night–now he, and Congress, should follow through with concrete action and adequate budgets.

The core of America’s fighting power is hollowing, and our men and women are increasingly going into combat with inadequate equipment–lacking the assurance they will prevail against any enemy. Instead of trumpeting talking points, policymakers should look behind the numbers at the story and state of the U.S. military.

The traditional margins of America’s technological military superiority are declining across the services and domains. Those margins–too often taken for granted as a birthright–have helped uphold the implicit contract most Americans have had with the all-volunteer military and ensured our forces were never in a “fair fight.”

If Washington is going to change America’s contract with those who serve that if they fight, they’ll have the very best to win, shouldn’t they first tell those in uniform?

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at AEI

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