WASHINGTON — After 26 years at war, the U.S. military is overstretched, cash-strapped and verging on breakdown, top military officials told Congress last week.
Budget gridlock and intense partisanship have left the armed services without the financial resources to handle armed conflict around the globe and also replace patched Reagan-era equipment that has become obsolete, they said.
The pitch to Congress represents an acknowledgement of a real problem and also an effort by a Republican government to take control of a military bureaucracy they view as troubled. The debate also has profound implications for Hawaii, whose economy is inextricably linked to that of the U.S. military establishment.
In searing congressional testimony last week, top officers of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps wincingly described planes too old to fly, ships too unseaworthy to be sent out of port, shortfalls on critical parts and munitions, and trained pilots leaving the services in frustration.
The Navy, said Adm. William Moran, vice chief of Naval Operations, is smaller than it has been in 99 years. About 53 percent of naval aircraft can no longer fly because there isn’t enough money to fix them. On Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. had 316 ships and 400,000 sailors; now it has 275 ships and 90,000 fewer sailors.
“We are on a clear path to not having enough capacity to answer the call anywhere in the world,” Moran said.
The Marine Corps, which is operating in 146 countries, is using amphibious assault vehicles that are more than 40 years old; the average age of its light armored vehicles is 26 years. More than 80 percent of the aviation units lack the minimum number of aircraft needed for training, according to Gen. Glenn Walters, assistant commandant of the Corps.
“American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted,” Walters said.
If aircraft required license plates, 54 percent of the Air Force’s aircraft would qualify for antique designation in Virginia, said Gen. Stephen Wilson, vice chief of staff of the Air Force.
He said that while the United States can deal with threats from small countries, it is not sufficiently well-equipped to fend off what he called a “high-end adversary,” such as Russia or China.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, asked Gen. Daniel Allyn, vice chief of staff for the Army, what would happen if the United States were forced to confront military threats in two different parts of the world simultaneously. Allyn said he could not respond to that question in a public hearing. To answer more specifically, he said, “we would need to go into a closed hearing.”
Democrats on the congressional panels, including U. S. Sen. Tim Kaine, the vice presidential running mate to Hillary Clinton, did not dispute the military’s characterization that the U. S. armed forces have been run into the ground.
“It is an unacceptable level of readiness,” said Kaine, D-Va., adding that the country needs to “restore Department of Defense readiness as soon as possible.”
“We need to tell the truth about how unready we are,” said U. S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
In the hearing last week, there were oblique references to previous failures of leadership, some of which cast President Barack Obama in a bad light, but there seemed to be little appetite for blaming him.
Instead, the elected officials serving on the Senate and House armed services committees openly acknowledged that Congress was primarily responsible because of its inability to compromise and establish financial priorities in an ordinary budget process.
For the past nine years, Congress has been unable to produce on-time budgets to meet the Oct. 1 start of each fiscal year. Instead it has turned to a series of continuing resolutions, which do not permit ordinary financial planning. The Budget Control Act of 2011, meanwhile, artificially capped defense spending at a time of growing threats, including increasing assertiveness by North Korea, Russia and China, and numerous attacks by Islamic terrorists in the United States and overseas.
The military officers say the armed service branches have responded by cutting back on routine maintenance and training to the point that some equipment is now derelict and some sailors and soldiers are being sent into combat without essential kinds of instruction.
On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump talked about his plan to boost military spending, including a pledge to expand the Navy’s fleet from 275 ships to 350. But according to U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the military must first be dug out of its current financial hole.
“Donald Trump has inherited a world on fire and a U.S. military weakened by years of senseless budget cuts,” said U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at a defense budget hearing in January. He has called for a $640 billion military budget for fiscal year 2018, an increase of $54 billion above current request levels.
In the Senate hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Wilson how long it would take for the Air Force to improve its current state of about 50 percent combat-readiness. He told her it would take six to eight years to bring readiness levels to 80 percent.
In 1991, during the Desert Storm campaign, he said, the United States had 134 fighter squadrons, but it now has only 55, and that 71 percent of those are now deployed, leaving only 29 percent available in the United States to confront other adversaries.
The Air Force, he said, “is too small for what the nation demands of it.”
What happens with the U.S. military has sweeping implications for Hawaii. The state is headquarters for the U.S. Pacific Command, which has the responsibility of keeping the peace in an area that comprises a little over half the Earth’s surface. All four branches of the military have installations in Hawaii.
After the Pentagon, Hawaii is home is the second-most-dense military concentration in the United States. The U.S. military is the largest single employer in the state and a major source of retiree benefits as well.
Pacific Command, which employs 380,000 soldiers, sailors and civilian workers, is based at Camp H.M. Smith just outside of Honolulu. Another 120,000 people in the state are veterans.
In Hawaii, the equipment and training shortfalls that military officials described at the recent hearing in Washington were tragically demonstrated with the helicopter crash that killed 12 Marines off Oahu in January 2016. An investigation later found that the Marines, who were stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, had been inadequately trained and were not logging enough flight hours to learn to execute basic tasks.
They did not have enough training because many of the aging CH-53E Super Stallions helicopters used in their exercises had mechanical problems and were unfit to fly.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.