Troubling Signs the Pentagon Is Going Soft
Policy + Politics

Troubling Signs the Pentagon Is Going Soft

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At a lunchtime Q&A Tuesday afternoon at the National Press Club, U.S. Army Chief Ray Odierno talked about his opposition to sending troops to Iraq to how the Army would execute the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. But during the hour-long discussion, Odierno spent more time addressing issues that have nothing to do with combat.

He discussed how the military handles sexual assaults and women in combat. He talked about low morale among DOD’s civilian workforce caused by last year’s sequester and the subsequent furloughs. His most in-depth comments addressed budget cuts expected in the coming years.

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“The up front reductions that were part of sequestration made it impossible to properly manage” DOD’s budget, Odierno said. He warned that American military readiness had been harmed by these cuts.

“Our budget is based on three major things--people, our ability to modernize ourselves and readiness. Sequestration forces us to go right out of balance,” he said. “We have a three year window…where we’re really out of balance. Our readiness and modernization programs are really taking a hit because I can’t take people out fast enough.”

This past year was one in which Odierno, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other DOD higher-ups seemingly spent more time talking about social issues than defense. Their attention was constantly pulled away from DOD’s core mission by the issues Odierno addressed yesterday - spending cuts, sexual assault, women in combat, and the sequester.

Now, 2014 could be the year that Americans find out whether Odierno’s warnings - that budget cuts have made the Pentagon soft -- are correct. There are a number of conflicts brewing around the world, from tensions between North and South Korea to air disputes between Russia and China. Some within the defense policy community now believe that troops would not be adequately prepared to respond to an international incident.

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Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said  the budget passed by Congress and President Obama provides some relief for DOD, but that it’s only temporary.

“It improves things in the sense that they’re not as bad as they would have been,” Donnelly said. “But they’re still pretty damn bad in readiness, force size modernization, everything that really matters.”

To date, Hagel has outlined a number of changes that would impact readiness. He said he plans to implement a training structure that would leave two brigades unready for combat, and some troops are expected to work with equipment that is not at the top of the line.

Some within the defense policy community believe these changes would have a negative impact, but one that would not substantially hurt U.S. military capabilities.

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"It's unquestionable that the U.S. military will be negatively impacted by some of the decisions arising from sequestration, but it will still remain the best trained and, particularly, the best equipped force in the world for the foreseeable future,” Kelley Sayler, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, said in a recent interview.

Donnelly believes that two real world scenarios -- one that’s already happened, and one that’s brewing -- had the potential to expose the military weakness Odierno warns about. The first was Syria, a conflict the White House chose not to engage in.

Odierno warned about this when Syria plans were more serious,” he said. “A force that would be responding to the situation in Syria, other than popping off 100 cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, is not something we could easily have done.”

The second is the brewing conflict between China and Japan. Donnelly said he is not confident the Pentagon would be able to respond adequately if things escalated quickly.  

“Whether it’s China bumping boats in South China Sea or it’s air defense zones claimed by China over Japan or the Middle East, we would not be able to deploy a large and well trained force in the face of a serious crisis,” Donnelly said.

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