The Joint Chiefs have a warning about military cuts


US Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno (L-R), Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the impact of sequestration on the national defense, on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 7, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • GEN Odierno: "History is rife with the wars that leaders knew would never be fought."

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  • Sequestration cuts are penny-wise and pound-foolish

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  • America's military strength and credibility are at stake

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America's senior military leaders painted another grim picture regarding the outlook for national security before Congress this week. To those who regularly tune in, the Joint Chiefs of Staff might be accused of sounding like a broken record. But that should not dissuade policymakers from paying attention to the facts our senior military representatives are soberly presenting day-in, day-out, week after week and month after month.

Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno kicked off with a straightforward warning: "History is rife with the wars that leaders knew would never be fought." These words hung over the room throughout the hearing as a reminder of the real world consequences of rapidly reduced budgets being imposed on those in uniform.

Odierno continued by outlining how America's lack of preparedness in previous wars extracted a terrible toll. He described how in both Korea and Vietnam, select American forces went into combat without the best training possible. The tragic results included reduced combat effectiveness and increased casualties. In fact, America's Joint Chiefs have taken to regularly discussing the past unnecessary casualties that have resulted from poorly-executed budget cuts. When they worry that the same thing might happen again in the future, they are not speculating, but rather basing their predictions on recent history. But few seem to be listening.

What is most ironic about what the Army chief calls "grave uncertainty" in the world is that America's recent drop in military preparedness is not only unwise, but expensive. This is a textbook example of being "penny-wise and pound foolish." Sequestration may save a dollar today but will cost two or three times as much to recover when the nation asks. And it will ask. Moreover, sequestration is resulting in inefficient and wasteful spending. Marine Corps Commandant James Amos noted that penalties arising from cancelled aviation contracts resulting from the cuts will cost $6.5 billion alone. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert further emphasized this point: "We are not saving costs, we are deferring costs … that are going to come home to roost."

While Pentagon leaders were able to soften the impacts of sequestration in 2013 in many cases by carrying over funding from past years and creative stretching of programs, no such buffer will exist in 2014. As Greenert's testimony noted, "we will not be able to use prior-year funds to mitigate shortfalls as we did in FY 2013." In other words, there is no more wiggle room. In fact, Congress learned today -- to the contrary -- some of the services are actually having to carry over unpaid invoices from 2013 due to deferred readiness bills.

All of this is especially depressing because, as Greenert observed, 2013 was a banner year for highlighting the effectiveness of American military power. Advanced U.S. planes and ships helped deter a conflict on the Korean peninsula, U.S.-Egyptian military ties helped keep an open line to the fluid situation there throughout the latest upheaval and, as the administration was quick to claim, the threat of military force in Syria helped pave the way to negotiations.

The most attractive aspect of military power is that it furthers the national interest even when it is not employed. This is what money buys through the payoff of deterrence. 2013 was proof positive of this effect.

Yet as the Chiefs made clear today, America's military strength and credibility are at stake. Unless President Obama and Congress actively work to alter sequestration, its primary billpayer, the U.S. military — and the American public — will lose twice. First, the taxpayer will owe more as a result of all this inefficient insecurity. And secondly, the nation will suffer immeasurably due to unnecessary instability and increasing military weakness as a result.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. 

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About the Author


  • Mackenzie Eaglen has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff. She specializes in defense strategy, budget, military readiness and the defense industrial base. In 2010, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission established to assess the Pentagon's major defense strategy. A prolific writer on defense related issues, she has also testified before Congress.


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