Republican White House hopefuls on Thursday are likely to sing what’s become a familiar dirge during every presidential debate so far: President Obama has degraded the military.
Top defense analysts with combat experience, however, say that refrain is simplistic, and fails to include other parties they hold responsible for current military problems, including President George W. Bush and his predecessors, and the Pentagon itself. The missteps include failed occupations in the Middle East, super-expensive weapons systems such as the F-35 fighter jet that under-perform, and the centuries-old inability of major powers to counter insurgencies.
“Those were strategic catastrophes insofar as they squandered trillions of dollars and cost too much life and blood,” Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who helped lead the U.S. and allied victory in the first Gulf War, said of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That money was diverted from useful investments in military power,” Macgregor, whose book on military misadventures will be published in June, told McClatchy. “There has been a failure to understand that occupations always ruin armies.”
While Macgregor and other experts see some merit in front-runner Donald Trump’s familiar lament that “we don’t win anymore,” they view the GOP candidates’ focus on Obama as short-sighted and lacking in strategic vision.
Ironically, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who was not in the Senate when the original sequestration measure was passed, but who threatened a government shutdown in 2013 if its spending limits were altered, has been the most forceful of the remaining Republican candidates in accusing Obama of having weakened the military.
“For seven years we’ve had a commander in chief who doesn’t believe in the mission of the military, who doesn’t stand by them, who has weakened and degraded the military in a way that has undermined readiness and made us far less able to defend ourselves,” Cruz told cheering South Carolina voters last week at a town hall in Greenville, S.C.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who voted against sequestration as a first-year senator, also has laid into Obama.
“Today, we are on pace to have the smallest Army since the end of World War II, the smallest Navy in 100 years, the smallest Air Force in our history,” Rubio said last month during a Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa. “You cannot destroy ISIS (the Islamic State) with a military that’s being diminished. When I’m president, we are rebuilding the U.S. military, because the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest military in the world.”
Experts agree that the number of sailors, soldiers, Marines and airmen has declined – to 1.3 million now from 1.4 million in 2002 – but they ascribe that decrease to what normally takes place when the U.S. ends a combat role, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The experts also concede the accuracy of some of the equipment numbers cited by the Republican candidates – the number of Navy ships, 272, is down from 529 in 1990, for example, though the number of aircraft has increased dramatically since 1990, to 5,285 from 3,874.
“If you do just a simple ship count, you’d be counting an aircraft carrier the same as a littoral combat ship, while the capabilities of those two ships are very different and their costs are very different,” said Todd Harrison, a retired Air Force Reserves captain.
“Regarding the Navy, what about the total tonnage of the fleet?” said Harrison, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington. “Or the throw power – how many weapons they can fire? How about the number of missile tubes on boats?”
He added: “No single metric is going to fully capture the strength of the military. You can pick or choose your metrics and string together whatever narrative you want about whether the military is getting weaker or stronger. At the end of the day, it’s a subjective assessment, not a quantitative assessment.”