Jan 17, 2018
Defense Drumbeat

By The WSJ Editorial Board
Read the full piece here.

For all the talk over a showdown with North Korea, few are asking: Do the less than 1% of Americans in the armed forces have the most lethal weapons and best training to defend the country? There is reason to wonder, and Congress has an opportunity to shore up the military as the world grows more dangerous.

Congress is trying to reach a budget deal to extend government funding that expires this month. One issue are the caps on defense spending under the 2011 Budget Control Act, which tried to force Congress to do something about the deficit by threatening automatic cuts. This has imposed useful discipline on non-entitlement spending, but the military has been hit harder than domestic accounts.

The military is operating at a high tempo in multiple theaters, even as funding has dropped and become more erratic. The Congressional Research Service says the Defense Department has operated under continuing resolutions, which are stopgap measures that limit spending flexibility, for more than 36 months since 2010. Compare that with fewer than nine months in the preceding eight years.

This means fewer resources for equipment maintenance and soldier training. Some of this could have contributed to the Navy’s collisions in the Pacific last year that killed 17 sailors. The Navy’s investigation revealed that training practices failed—for instance, crew members “were not familiar with basic radar fundamentals.” Ships are deployed at sea more often and for longer. A prescient 2015 Government Accountability Office report found that ships based in Japan had “no dedicated training periods” as a result of the deployment pace.

A mere five of 58 brigade combat teams in the Army are prepared to “fight tonight,” according to the House Armed Services Committee. And—levity moment—by one account half of the Air Force’s aircraft major weapons systems would be eligible for an antique license plate in Virginia. The Air Force is also short about 2,000 pilots, up from 1,500 roughly a year ago, and the deterioration of equipment can lead to an exodus of talent.

Of note is a precipitous increase in Class A flight mishaps, which inflict $2 million in damage to aircraft or loss of life. The Marine aviation Class A mishap rate has been rising above the historical norm. The Navy’s rate is better but both suffered fatal accidents last year, including an October crash of a Navy trainer jet that killed both pilots...

The political shame is that money to address these problems is being held hostage in a left-right crossfire. Democrats are trying to extract a dollar more in domestic spending for every new dollar deployed to the military. A faction on the right complains about runaway federal spending.

Both are taking the wrong hostage. Democrats may not appreciate the reminder but the U.S. still has to defend itself no matter the funding for food stamps. The GOP can rile up voters about federal debt, but the main fiscal problems are entitlements, which won’t be touched in a budget deal...


...The 2011 budget deal served a purpose but by now it is eroding America’s defenses. We’d prefer if Congress increased money for defense and reformed entitlements, but that isn’t going to happen this year. The fallback should be a deal for two years of increased spending for budget clarity. Last year’s defense authorization suggested a $700 billion top line: More than $46 billion for fixing up aircraft and $16 billion for mitigating “critical munitions shortages,” among other priorities.

U.S. military dominance isn’t inevitable, and there are ample signs it is eroding. A spending deal won’t correct every Pentagon dysfunction, but the services need more political and financial support. The result without it will be more risk for the men and women of the military and less security for the other 99% of Americans.

Appeared in the January 16, 2018, print edition.

115th Congress