The nation’s top military commander painted a dark picture Tuesday of future U.S. defense capabilities clouded by shrinking Pentagon budgets and adversaries’ technological advances that he said would erode American battlefield superiority.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided his sobering views as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated evaluation of U.S. military strength issued every four years.
Dempsey predicted that it would become increasingly difficult to balance the competing demands of protecting allies abroad, securing Americans at home and deterring future wars.
“The smaller and less capable military outlined in the QDR makes meeting these obligations more difficult,” he said. “Most of our platforms and equipment will be older, and our advantages in some domains will have eroded. Our loss of depth across the force could reduce our ability to intimidate opponents from escalating conflicts.”
Dempsey added: “Moreover, many of our most capable allies will lose key capabilities. The situation will be exacerbated given our current readiness concerns, which will worsen over the next three or four years.”
Dempsey’s perspective was more pessimistic than that of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“As we move off the longest continuous war footing in our nation’s history, this QDR explains how we will adapt, reshape and rebalance our military for the challenges and opportunities of the future,” Hagel said in a statement.
Dempsey issued his warnings as President Barack Obama sent Congress a 2015 budget for the entire government on Tuesday that provides the Pentagon just over $600 billion.
That’s $13 billion less than current funding, but $26 billion more than provided in a budget deal that Congress approved in December by large bipartisan majorities.
Dempsey lashed out at Congress for slashing defense funding over the last three years while preventing the Pentagon from shuttering unneeded military bases, retiring outdated weapons systems and taking other steps to save money.
“I urge Congress - again - to move quickly to implement difficult decisions and to remove limitations on our ability to make hard choices within the Department of Defense,” he said. “The changes required for institutional reform are unpleasant and unpopular, but we need our elected leaders to work with us to reduce excess infrastructure, slow the growth of military pay and compensation, and retire equipment that we do not need.”
The response from Congress was quick.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the quadrennial review was driven by politics, was “budget-driven” and does not provide enough insight into Pentagon needs beyond the current spending restraints.
“Unfortunately, the product . . . is of little value to decision-makers,” McKeon said in a statement.
Calling the review “shortsighted,” McKeon said it “allows the president to duck the consequences of the deep defense cuts he has advocated and leaves us all wondering what the true future costs of those cuts will be.”
McKeon said he will introduce legislation requiring the Pentagon “to rewrite and resubmit a compliant report.”
A congressional demand that the Pentagon redo the quadrennial review, which is 88 pages long this time, would be unprecedented. Even if such a bill were to pass the Republican-controlled House, it almost certainly would be defeated in the Democratic-majority Senate.
Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, accused Obama of slashing defense funding in his proposed budget while seeking new spending in other areas.
“We see a budget which drives us further into debt, takes more money out of the pockets of the American people, decreases our military readiness and does nothing to ensure that critical entitlements will be sustainable for the next generation,” Scott said.
The back and forth among the Pentagon, Obama and Congress extends a blame game over defense funding reductions that most outside analysts say are inevitable.
The budget cuts follow a decade-long spending binge triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as Pentagon funding reached record highs to pay for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and broader anti-terror initiatives.
Hagel’s criticism of the defense spending reductions over the last three years was more muted than that of Dempsey.
“These continued fiscal constraints cannot be ignored,” the defense secretary said. “It would be dishonest and irresponsible to present a QDR articulating a strategy disconnected from the reality of resource constraints. A strategy must have the resources for its implementation.”