America has a can-do military, by tradition and inclination, and so when the combatant commanders ask for assets, the service chiefs and their forces provide. But more than a decade of war, plus regional challenges such as Iran and China, have been wearing on the troops. It has long been obvious that something would have to give: Either the CoComs would have to demand less, or the services would have to start saying no.
No one wants to be the first to say, “I can’t,” and so the issue festered for years, as readiness slipped and maintenance was given short shrift.
Finally, in the early months of 2013, we are hearing from people with stars on their shoulders. There was Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, who raised the specter in remarks at the Surface Navy Association’s January symposium in Washington, D.C. Copeman, who is responsible for manning, training and equipping the Navy’s surface forces, said his fleet was “pretty close” to going hollow.
“When a combatant commander says a ship’s supposed to leave on deployment and it doesn’t leave on time for whatever reason, then we know we’ve probably gotten there,” he said. “And there are ships right now that aren’t doing it.”
Just two weeks later, the issue was at last broached publicly by a leader at the very top. Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the need to evaluate the “demand signals” from the combatant commanders. This in itself was a remarkable thing, but Winnefeld went further and laid out a scheme for prioritizing calls for military assets.
Winnefeld says he and JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey are redefining U.S. defense strategy around six goals: Ward off existential-level threats to the nation, prevent catastrophic attacks upon its economy, stop major attacks at home, protect U.S. citizens abroad, defend allies and, when possible, spread American values. The vice chairman said this structure will be used to evaluate plans and purchases — and also CoComs’ requests.
Already, the Defense Department has said it will allow the Navy to keep only one carrier on station in the Middle East, rather than two. That will save hundreds of millions of dollars a year and end one of the more egregious examples of imbalance. Iran’s a problem, yes, but the marginal value to national security of keeping an “extra” carrier off its shores is limited.
As Winston Churchill is said to have said, “Gentlemen, we are out of money; it is time to think.”