Opinion

Obama-Hagel defense budget is based on dangerous guesswork

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Jed Babbin,Barack Obama,Defense Spending,Military Budget,Chuck Hagel,Robert Gates

Release of the 2014 Pentagon budget should have been an epiphany for America's allies and enemies.

It continued the process of reducing America's military to pre-World War II size, but -- as we can infer from the remarks of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel -- there's some sort of strategic realignment close at hand.

Inklings of that realignment were detected before Hagel made his announcement. When President Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that he shouldn't invade Ukraine, there was a faint echo of the “red line” he drew for Putin in Syria.

The Russian strongman probably smiled at Obama’s warning, remembering the “red line” Syria crossed so quickly with no response from Washington.

How Putin will react to Hagel’s announcement can be predicted: content, bordering on gleeful.

In his Monday press conference Hagel said, “You have fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer planes. Readiness is not the same standard. Of course there’s going to be risk.” But what that risk will be, or how great it will be, he didn’t say.

If you look at our armed forces, managing risk is one of their principal businesses. They’re responsible for deterring or defeating any nation or nonstate actor (to use the current euphemism for terrorist network) that threatens or attacks us.

Hagel's announcement was too much like the warning the Air Force sounded years ago about the F-22. Originally, the Air Force said it needed 750 of the enormously capable warbirds.

Then the budget-cutters started in. When the number to be bought reached 250, the Air Force said that would be a “moderate risk” force.

Then it was cut to the final number of 187. If 250 was a moderate risk, is 187 a high risk? And what is the risk? To lose a war?

America is entitled to know just what risks Hagel’s cuts — really, Obama’s — produce. Hagel will, probably in early March, go to the Capitol to testify on the budget.

Congressmen and senators interested in doing their jobs will force Hagel to testify about just what the risks are, how soon they will occur and what can be done to eliminate them. Anything less would be a travesty.

The truth is that Hagel doesn't know the answer to those questions. Like Robert Gates before him, Hagel has committed the cardinal sin of making budget cuts before doing any analysis of the threats we face.

Unless and until you do that, you can’t know what the threats really are, and you can’t develop a strategy to deter or defeat the threats.

All you can do is what Gates did: produce a “Quadrennial Defense Review” that, instead of doing the job it’s supposed to do, backs into a justification of the budget cuts already decided.

Hagel is following Gates's path with precision. The cuts are already made and will quickly be implemented unless Congress acts, which it won't.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and his likely successor, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, will try to make repairs, but what they do won't survive the Senate.

On Monday, Hagel also said that we could afford a smaller military if we retained our technological edge and the agility to respond anywhere on the globe.

What he didn’t say is how that can be possible with the cuts he and the president plan. There is no evidence that we are investing in the people and weapon systems that will assure us of that capability in three, five or 10 years hence.

In 2012, before being muzzled by his political bosses, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the defense spending cuts imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (called “sequestration”) would cause the United States to be reduced from its superpower role in the world.

From Obama’s diplomacy, which continues to alienate allies and delight enemies, and his strong support of military budget cuts, it appears he’s eager for America to fall from superpower to also-ran.

With that fall inevitably comes the loss of our ability to influence most of the events happening in the world. Whether it's Ukraine, Syria, Iraq or China, Obama is leading us to irrelevance.

One element of the approaching irrelevance is the fact that we have no discernible strategy that can be connected to the budgets and functions of the military.

More than a year ago, I interviewed Gen. Richard Myers, a retired general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on these matters.

Asked about how to craft a defense budget, Myers spoke first about strategy. He asked, “What is our national strategy? What is our U.S. military strategy? What are our vital national interests; what role does the military play in ensuring that our vital national interests are supported and achieved?”

There is no evidence that Myers’s questions can be answered by Obama or Hagel or anyone else in Obama’s administration.

Without answers to those questions, our defense budgets and policies are just guesswork — and very dangerous guesswork at that.

Jed Babbin is an op-ed contributor to The Washington Examiner. He was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is a contributing editor for The American Spectator and the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."
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