By Senator Roger Wicker
As the U.S. celebrates the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the lessons of that long-ago conflict should not be forgotten by today’s policymakers. In those bleak years, the U.S. saw that even the border of an expansive ocean would not fully protect our nation.
U.S. resilience reaffirmed our sovereignty during that war. The influence of seapower on national security and commerce was clear then, and it remains the same today. Unfortunately, decisions in the coming months could jeopardize the tools required to maintain America’s leadership in the world.
There is no doubt the U.S. faces a diverse set of challenges abroad – from the Asia-Pacific region and Iran to a host of emerging threats. And yet, discussions of future investment within the Pentagon and Congress are set against a backdrop of budget uncertainty and looming sequestration, which could cripple the ability of our armed forces to fulfill its strategic priorities.
With America’s debt nearing $16 trillion, reining in reckless federal spending is imperative to our national and economic security. Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, identified the debt as our No. 1 security threat.
However, addressing the country’s long-term fiscal challenge should not risk the leadership and pre-eminence of the American military or the skilled jobs necessary to supply today’s advanced force. Federal debt is a national security threat, but so is unilaterally cutting key funding to America’s men and women in uniform.
The Budget Control Act, which passed last year, required immediate cuts, and the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction was responsible for producing a blueprint to reduce the national deficit by an additional $1.5 trillion. Our hope was that the committee would have produced a reasoned, long-term solution to America’s debt crisis, addressing the exploding growth of entitlement spending.
This was a significant bipartisan opportunity, but the committee’s failure to identify savings will trigger an automatic $1.2 trillion in across-the-board budget cuts on Jan. 3. Under sequestration, the Pentagon faces $492 billion in cuts across the board. The rest will be divided equally from the remaining portions of the federal budget, including nondefense discretionary spending and entitlement programs. Unless Congress acts, the U.S. Navy will be particularly hard hit. The Navy Department is the armed forces’ most capital-intensive branch. According to civilian and uniformed Navy leaders, our ability to deter threats, defend our priorities and project seapower could be gravely compromised if cuts are made indiscriminately. Areas of greatest concern are:
• Readiness: Sequestration would cause the Marine Corps to endure an additional 10 percent cut in troop levels, leaving our Marines without sufficient manpower to meet even one major contingency operation.
• Fleet size: Currently, the Navy can meet only half of combatant commander requests for naval support. Under sequestration, the Navy fleet would drop to 230 ships, well below the statutory requirement.
• Acquisition efficiencies: Experience has shown that stable shipbuilding rates have a direct impact on the acquisition and life-cycle costs of new naval vessels. Sequestration would prevent the Navy from achieving efficiencies required to deliver new ships on time and on budget.
• Vitality of the industrial base: The average age of today’s shipyard employee is 45, with only 24 percent of our naval shipbuilding workforce under the age of 35. Sequestration would drive a generation of skilled shipbuilders from the workforce and have a prolonged negative impact on American high-tech manufacturing.
The stakes are high for the military and the American economy. Some defense manufacturers have already begun the process of issuing legally required layoff warning notices to shareholders and employees. According to multiple reports, up to 1 million jobs could be at risk.
Tough decisions will have to be made to fix our country’s debt problem. All federal agencies, including the Defense Department, will have to do more with less in today’s era of fiscal austerity. Strong leadership is essential to make the decisions necessary to put America back on a fiscally responsible path.
There are promising signs of bipartisan cooperation in Congress to ensure our military remains the best-trained, best-equipped and most professional fighting force in the world. In May, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved its draft of the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill.
The committee bill contains many provisions reflecting Congress’ support of the Defense Department’s top strategic priorities. This defense authorization reflects the challenges we may encounter while outlining ways to reduce spending. If enacted, it will mark the 51st consecutive year that Congress has passed this important piece of defense legislation.
All Americans, as well as our adversaries and allies abroad, will watch carefully in coming months to see whether Washington can muster a consensus to address our fiscal crisis while maintaining essential national priorities.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is ranking member of the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee. The former Ingalls shipyard, now part of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is in Pascagoula, Miss. Contact the senator through his Tupelo office, (662) 844-5010.