There is broad consensus that when Congress reconvenes in November, it must act to prevent sequestration. That is the $500 billion cut in defense spending scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 2, which all parties agree would be catastrophic for our national security.
But as we contemplate proposals to ward off sequestration, we must not lose sight of a larger truth: Our armed forces are already under unprecedented strain because of the $487 billion in defense cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act last year. This budget reduction is delaying critical modernization programs and forcing our military to slash manpower and force structure.
That is why, in the post-election session of Congress, I won't support any debt-reduction package that requires our military to accept further cuts.
The reductions in military spending that we have already accepted weren't driven by improvements in the strategic climate facing our country. Contrary to claims that the "tide of war is receding," our national-security threats are becoming more complex and no less demanding or urgent.
We have made significant progress in recent years against al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan. But the group's Islamist extremist affiliates and allies have made inroads elsewhere--including Yemen, Syria and Mali, where al Qaeda's North African branch has established a haven in a vast swath of territory. In the Persian Gulf, Iran's pursuit of asymmetric capabilities (including missiles, mines and submarines) is compelling us to expand our naval and air presences there, not draw them down. Then there is the Asia-Pacific region, where China's double-digit growth in military spending and assertive behavior against neighbors (including U.S. treaty allies) is unsettling the regional balance of power.
To address these challenges, the Obama administration's "Defense Strategic Guidance" rightly pledges more rotational deployments across the globe to reassure our friends, deter our adversaries, and protect our national interests. But the truth is that our military is simply too small to do everything that is being asked of it. While our forces' high operational tempo is less visible than it was at the height of the Iraq War, it is no less stressful on our servicemembers and their families.
Consider that the Navy's 285-ship fleet is already slated to decline by nine ships by 2015. That means longer cruises with less time between deployments for ships to receive needed maintenance and for sailors to recuperate. Thus the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group completed a seven-month deployment to the Persian Gulf in March, spent five months at home, then began an eight-month deployment in August. The USS Enterprise and USS Carl Vinson strike groups have faced similar schedules in the past two years--a pace that senior Navy officials have said is wearing out ships and straining crews.
The cuts already enacted are similarly causing the Air Force to buy fewer planes despite persistent demands on its declining force, which increasingly relies on aging aircraft produced during the Cold War. Under its budget for the coming fiscal year, the Air Force will procure the fewest aircraft since becoming an independent service 65 years ago.
For the Army and Marine Corps, last year's cuts mean 92,000 troops forced out over the next five years, including tens of thousands of involuntary separations--layoffs, effectively.
Some people attempt to justify these cuts by arguing that our military won't face the same demands that it has over the past decade. But it is unwise to assume away dangers. One of the clearest lessons I draw from my 24 years in the Senate is that, despite our best efforts, events will inevitably take us by surprise--as did the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 9/11 attacks, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring. The only thing we can know about the decade ahead is that further strategic surprises lie in store.
That is why it is so critical for our military to be modernized and manned for the full range of missions that it may be called upon to carry out in defense of our security, liberty and values. I fear that is not where America's armed forces are headed if we cut more from the defense budget.
We must put our country's fiscal house in order--but not at the expense of our security. Sequestration of both defense and nondefense accounts can and must be avoided by a bipartisan debt-reduction package that deals with the real drivers of our fiscal problem: entitlement spending and insufficient revenue.
Protecting the American people is the most important responsibility that the Constitution gives the federal government, and our defense budget's trajectory signals to the American people--and to our friends and enemies around the world--how strongly committed we are to that responsibility.
That is why, when Congress reconvenes after the election, I will do everything I can to stop the additional $500 billion in defense cuts. Because so much has already been taken from the U.S. military, I will oppose any deal that cuts one dollar more from our national defense. America's security cannot afford it.