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Ready for What? -- Joint Chiefs Miss the Point on Pentagon Reform

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The sky is falling -- again -- at the Pentagon. Or so one would think from listening to this week's testimony by the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno claimed that the Army was at "the lowest readiness level I've seen since I've been serving for the last 37 years." Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that "we're tapped out" when it comes to sending an aircraft carrier task force to any new region of crisis. And Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh argued that "the impact of not modernizing" due to currently planned budget caps "will be blatant and deadly."

What are we to make of these claims? There's no question that the armed forces have made some cutbacks in training as the automatic cuts known as the sequester have begun to kick in. But these changes have hardly left the United States in the role of some sort of pitiful helpless giant unable to defend itself or its interests around the world.

In fact, there are signs that the world has been becoming a safer place even as the Pentagon and the armed forces have been adjusting to their first significant cutbacks in over a decade. That's in part because in a complex world where nontraditional challenges like mass casualty terrorism, cyber-attacks, nuclear proliferation and climate change pose the greatest threats to human lives and livelihoods, the military is not -- and should not be -- the first line of defense. And it is in part because after over a decade of war, the Obama administration has decided that it's time to give diplomacy a chance.

It's still early and the progress made to date is still fragile, but the accomplishments of concerted diplomatic efforts in recent months are impressive nonetheless. In a deal brokered by Russia and blessed by the United Nations Security Council, Syria is in the process of getting rid of its chemical weapons. And a deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program is about to be concluded, if misguided hawks in Congress can get out-of-the-way and let the diplomats do their jobs.

These developments have been nurtured by international cooperation, not unilateral military confrontation. The fact that Russia helped broker the chemical weapons deal with Syria and that five other countries are playing a role in the talks with Iran are signs of strength, not weakness, as the right-wing pundits and politicians have argued. A decade of saber-rattling and war has cost far too much and accomplished far too little. It's long past time to give diplomacy a chance - not just for the days and weeks allowed for by our 24-hour news cycle, but for the months and years actually needed to achieve progress in the real world.

And in the unlikely event that using military force is truly needed to defend the United States, there are still plenty of resources available to do so. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel underscored this point in a speech this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

[E]ven as we deal with new budgetary constraints on defense spending, the United States will continue to represent nearly 40 percent of global defense expenditures. And most of the world's other leading military powers are America's close allies.

In any case, as Hagel also said at his speech at CSIS, "the military should always play a supporting role, not the leading role, in America's foreign policy." A strong military is essential, but how much to spend on it and whether and when to use it should be decided in the context of a larger strategy crafted primarily by the civilian side of the government.

Hagel and his predecessors at the Department of Defense have rightly asserted that the "civilian instruments of power" need to be strengthened. The Pentagon's combatant commanders shouldn't have more influence than our ambassadors in determining regional policies, and the department should stop creating its own programs for arming and training foreign military forces that do an end run around the need for openness and accountability in our foreign assistance programs. The number of trained diplomats in the U.S. foreign service shouldn't be smaller than the number of personnel it takes to run one aircraft carrier strike force. It is more important to be ready to promote peace than it is to be ready to go to war -- particularly when the scenarios used to size U.S. forces are increasingly out of touch with emerging international realities.

The chiefs have one thing right when it comes to the sequester. The across-the-board nature of the cuts makes it much harder to manage the drawdown in Pentagon funding than it needs to be. If Congress could come out of gridlock mode long enough to give the Pentagon more flexibility in how it meets the budget caps set out in current law it would be a positive step. But in the meantime there is plenty that the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs can do to envision and implement a new strategy that makes the military an appropriate part of a larger plan for promoting peace and security in a rapidly changing world. Before we let exaggerated cries of a readiness crisis scare us into letting the Pentagon off the hook on further budget cuts, we need to think harder about what we want our armed forces to be ready to do.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation books).