The Cost of War

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

It’s time to think of the costs that more than 14 years of war have had on this country.

I’m not just thinking in terms of dollars, although we should worry because most of the added expense, over $1 trillion, has been put on a credit card. This so-called war on terrorism – with no end in sight – remains the first war that American presidents have not asked the public to pay for with a special tax.

I’m also concerned with how few Americans are directly or even indirectly involved in the conflict, with only one percent of U.S. citizens serving or having served in the military, and another two or three percent being a part of the defense community.

That means more than 90 percent of the public are just observers, for whom this near decade-and-a-half of bloodshed is something that appears on television or causes a moment of recognition at some sports event.

Even the five presidential candidates give it only a sentence or two when they mention it at all, and they are almost never questioned about it.

However, with little or no public notice, the growing human and dollar costs were front and center the past two weeks on Capitol Hill, as military and civilian leaders from the Defense Department testified about the fiscal 2017 Defense Department budget.

“Today, less than half of our nation’s military is ready to perform their core wartime mission, and some critical units are in far worse shape than this 50 percent.”  That was Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), hardly a military hardliner, speaking at a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee hearing March 15, referring to a previous classified briefing on military readiness he attended, but saying he was disclosing what was already made public.

The cause, Kaine said, was “fourteen years of sustained combat together with the Budget Control Act of 2011 [that] have presented the nation with a unique readiness challenge. It’s kind of the perfect storm of two significant events, and that problem has no likely end in sight.”

His list, echoed in other hearings by Pentagon officials, included “no – zero – fully ready Army brigade teams…only nine ready BCTs [brigade combat teams] available for unforeseen contingencies. Less than half of the Marine Corps units are ready to perform their core wartime mission…80 percent of aviation squadrons do not have the required number of aircrafts to train…Less than half of our Navy ships are ready to ship to meet wartime plans…ship deployments that used to be six months are now eight to 10 months, which exacerbates the conditions of the ships and also creates challenges for those in the extended deployments.”

Marine Assistant Commandant Gen. John Paxton Jr., summed up what most service commanders also told Congress saying, “We mortgage our future readiness because we’re trying to fight today’s fight. So I have concerns about capacity and future readiness, and everything we do is trade space, and we – we need some top line relief.” 

“The Air Force never came home from the first Gulf War,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III told a House Armed Services hearing March 17. “We’ve had airmen flying in their tasking order for 25 years in the Middle East. During that time…we’ve cut 40 percent of our active duty force. So that lower force size combined with increased deployment operations tempo over the last 25 years, has limited the amount of training we can do for the other missions that we’re required to do in a different kind of conflict.”

“Fifteen years we’ve been running back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. “And during that time, we’ve been fighting one typology of war against counterinsurgents or terrorists or guerrillas. And our higher-end training against conventional threats, hybrid threats, threats that involve enemy artillery, enemy air, enemy electronic warfare, et cetera, the higher end, high intensity type battlefields, have not been routinely practiced for 15 consecutive years. So our readiness against that type of threat has deteriorated over a decade and a half.”

What is it that the Defense Department is preparing for?  Gen. Milley put it more bluntly, “The very first question any of us needs to ask is readiness for what?

Milley answered it this way: “We’re talking about great power war with one of, or two of four countries. You’re talking about China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. That’s the guidance we were given, that’s how we’re for sizing the budget, or that’s how we’re for sizing the force and that’s how we planned the budget, in accordance with the National Military Strategy, the Defense Planning Guidance, and a wide variety of other documents.”

You would think that the current election campaign would be the time for candidates at every federal level, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and for certain the Presidency, to be laying out their concerns on national security and their plans to meet them.

For example, we should be hearing candidates’ positions on the rebuilding of America’s triad of nuclear weapon delivery systems.

In last week’s hearings, Navy officials stressed that the multi-billion-dollar costs of constructing the planned 12 new Ohio class strategic submarines beginning in 2021 will, as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus put it, “Just gut…Navy shipbuilding for decades to come.” 

The Air Force has a similar problem as it faces funding 100 or more new, B-21 strategic bombers at some $500 million apiece. Exploration has begun for future replacement of the current, 450 land-based, Minuteman III ICBMs.

Air Force Chief Welsh described the impending costs for rebuilding the Triad of nuclear delivery systems as requiring “a much larger discussion than any particular service. It has to be the Department of Defense. It’s Congressional, it’s a White House discussion. And I hope it’s something that the next administration takes on early in their tenure, because we need an answer pretty quickly, or we’re going to spend money toward a lot of programs that we can’t complete if we don’t fund them down the road.”

Here, at The Cipher Brief, we plan to start our own “larger discussion” in the coming weeks and months, not just on funding strategic weapons but many other defense programs, such as healthcare, retirement, roles and missions, acquisitions, contractors plus the need to generate funds to pay for them.

We are hoping you readers will contribute your ideas so we can start a conversation on these subjects. Eventually, the presidential and congressional candidates must realize they have to join in.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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