The past eight months have been troubling for American security and for how the world regards American power. The September 11, 2012 attack on our consulate in Benghazi killed the U.S. ambassador and two former SEALs as well as a third American under circumstances which have yet fully to be explained. Early in April another American diplomat was killed in an attack on a convoy in Afghanistan. The terrorists who set off the bomb at the Boston marathon two weeks later may not have been manipulated from abroad, but their ability to kill and maim feeds citizens’ growing sense of vulnerability.
Events in the less kinetic world have reinforced the fact and appearance of weakness. In mid-March Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States wouldn’t stand in the way of British and French efforts to help the Syrian rebels overthrow Bashar al-Assad, thus putting real flesh on the Administration’s uniquely flaccid notion of “leading from behind.” The U.S. response to increasingly bellicose North Korean words and deeds has been tepid. Deploying more military equipment to the region, as the Administration has done, is wise. But then, during a mid-April visit to China, Secretary Kerry remarked that newly upgraded U.S. missile defenses in the region might be removed as an incentive to Beijing for reining in the North Koreans. It was an exercise in appeasement worthy of Neville Chamberlain. His and President Obama’s exhortations to Pyongyang to tone down their rhetoric sounded more pleading than resolute. They followed the Administration’s decision in February not to deploy the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf. This leaves a single carrier group in the Gulf and was justified as a money-saving issue in advance of sequestration. There can be no doubt that the halving of U.S. aircraft carrier presence (plus escorts) in the Gulf was greeted with a measure of satisfaction in Iran equal to the alarm caused among our Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, at the prospect that the United States might reduce its missile defenses to placate an implacable enemy, North Korea.
But these American reverses and retreats are small dots on the expanding balloon of the cuts in defense that the Obama Administration has already undertaken and those that sequestration promises. The budget cuts made in Obama’s first term added to those that sequestration mandates will cut more than $1 trillion from U.S. defenses over approximately 12 years. Measured as a fraction of gross domestic product this would decrease defense spending to less than half the level it experienced during the period from the second Nixon to the second Obama Administration.
It would be impossible to say that this streak of unavenged murders, diplomatic enervation and ever-deepening cuts to the Defense Department military budget has made the United States stronger. But the less visible plans to reduce combat preparedness and contracts for new ships, as well as the silent contraction of U.S. naval presence, have set in motion a slow retreat toward home waters that is as antithetical to national policy dating back to the Founding as it may eventually prove dangerous.
In advance of the sequester the Navy announced plans to decrease the training of the air wings that deliver the combat power of aircraft carriers. At the same time it cancelled ship deployments; began negotiations to end shipbuilding contracts whose fulfillment sequestration will prevent; and slowed maintenance of Marine combat equipment and the entry of pilots into the Navy. Other planned reductions included cancelling the Blue Angels’ public demonstrations of naval air power, a penny-wise, pound-foolish measure that will further diminish the American public’s appreciation of the nation’s ability to project effective global power.
The plans are being executed. April saw the failure to deploy as scheduled of an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, USS Kaufmann, and the hospital ship Comfort, both of which were to deploy to Central and South America; Grasp, a salvage and rescue vessel bound for Europe; USS Jefferson City, an attack submarine; and the guided missile frigate, USS Rentz. Another guided missile frigate, USS Thach, was ordered home early from its duties with the U.S. Southern Command. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that four carrier air wings would stop flying and another two would be reduced to the lowest level of preparedness. This could leave the Navy with one carrier in reserve against the possibility of a crisis.
In all, the reductions planned thus far will reduce the Navy’s global presence and pace of operations. Carter added that the pullbacks could attenuate the Navy’s ability to operate ships and aircraft in the western Pacific by one-third. He offered this public assessment in March, the same month in which North Korea threatened to launch preemptive missile strikes against South Korea and the United States; tore up the armistice that ended fighting in 1953; abandoned the joint declaration on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and threatened to attack U.S. and South Korean bases south of the DMZ. A fiction writer could not better orchestrate the simultaneous threat of aggressive danger and passive hesitation.
Moreover, just as ships are being tied up or ordered home to save money, the Navy continues extending the time its deployed ships remain on patrol. For decades a normal deployment had been six months. As tasks have multiplied over the past ten years—for example in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Afghanistan—the new normal is approaching nine-month deployments. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula, increased vigilance in the Persian Gulf as Iran progresses in its nuclear weapons program, and continued disputes between China and its neighbors over islands and commercial rights in the South China Sea have not decreased the demand for a stabilizing and global U.S. naval presence. The solution has been in large measure to extend ships’ deployments and thus sailors’ time at sea away from their families. The aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower returned from a nine-month deployment to the Middle East in December 2012. USS Nimitz was to have relieved her, but repairs to Nimitz took longer than anticipated. So the “Ike” went back to the Middle East after two months in port. Under normal circumstances her crew would have been in port for a year before being sent back to sea. Straitened resources and the Pentagon’s determination to avoid a strategic division of the budget among the military services have resulted in constraints that suspend American seapower from a fraying thread.
In the end, whether we have enough of the right kind of forces sufficiently prepared to defend our interests and those of our allies bound to us by treaties is a question of political will. The accumulating cuts in American seapower over the past two decades, multiplied now by a sequestration to which politicians on both sides of the aisle are party, are a troubling sign that our former will is weakening.