Republican White House hopefuls are likely Thursday to sing what’s become a familiar dirge during every presidential debate so far: President Barack 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.
They are especially critical of the congressionally mandated spending limits known as sequestration that were contained in the 2011 Budget Control Act. They’ve required the armed forces to reduce manpower, training and equipment maintenance. While about half the Democrats in Congress voted for them, the spending caps were driven by tea party-inspired Republicans.
“Sequestration ended up causing a lot of work stoppages and work slowdowns in maintenance facilities,” said Bryan Clark, a retired Navy commander who spent much of the 1990s on a nuclear submarine chasing Russian subs. “It caused this backlog that’s never really been caught up to.”
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.
President Obama and members of Congress from both parties thought the military was transitioning from a war footing to a peacetime posture when they imposed spending caps in 2011.
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, where almost 200,000 U.S. troops were deployed at peak levels in 2007 and 2008.
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.
But the experts say such numerical comparisons are of limited value, given the technological advance of American ships and planes over the last quarter-century and the change their missions have undergone.
1.3 million The number of active duty U.S. troops, down slightly from 1.4 million in 2003 at the start of the Iraq war.
“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.”
As for comparisons by Rubio and, before he dropped out of the White House race, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that go back many decades to World War II or even earlier, military experts find them laughable.
There were no nuclear submarines during World War II, the experts say, no laser-guided precision bombs, no drones providing battlefield-wide surveillance and targeted aerial strikes without risk to pilots.
Comparing troop capabilities based solely on numbers produces similar problems.
“With communications advances and long-range surveillance and precision weapons, ground units today have a lot more firepower and can be a lot more effective than their predecessors 50 years ago,” said Clark, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
Special Forces troops or other ground forces, he said, can’t be measured by counting bodies.
“There were special operators 50 or even 100 years ago, but they didn’t have the same technology,” Clark said. “The technology today allows our forces to accomplish more over a much greater range than their predecessors in World War I or World War II were able to do.”
But such prowess matters only if those forces are sent on the right missions.
Dan Grazier, a retired Marine captain who commanded tank platoons in Iraq, said his combat experience there was frustrating because he and his men had been trained to fight against a different enemy than the one they encountered.
“If you’re a tank officer, you want to go fight enemy tanks” said Grazier, now a fellow with the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington. “The people we were dealing with were in track suits and carrying rusty AK-47s. I was in an Abrams tank. We had every advantage technologically, but we were still unable to gain a clear victory.”
With communications advances and long-range surveillance and precision weapons, ground units today have a lot more firepower and can be a lot more effective than their predecessors 50 years ago.
Bryan Clark, retired Navy commander
The Pentagon itself comes in for criticism from defense experts, who say the Defense Department has done a poor job of anticipating challenges that have arisen, despite the widespread belief that the United States could return to a peacetime posture.
They note, for example that in a congressionally mandated annual report called Defense Strategic Guidance, the Pentagon in 2012 mentioned Russia just once, and then only to note that “we will continue to build a closer relationship in areas of mutual interest.”
While countering terrorism was a central focus of the report, al Qaida was the main target. The Islamic State was not cited; neither was Syria, even though its bloody civil war had been raging for more than a year. China was described as an emerging “regional power” that might contribute to “causing friction in the (Pacific) region.”
Within 30 months of that strategic assessment, Vladimir Putin had sent Russian troops into Ukraine to annex Crimea, the Islamic State had declared a caliphate across a broad swatch of Iraq and Syria, and Beijing would send its navy into the South and East China Sea, instigating maritime confrontations with Japan, the Philippines and other U.S. allies.
“Neither side (Democrat or Republican) anticipated the rise of ISIS or that China would become as aggressive as it’s become or that Russia would be re-assertive,” Clark said. “Nobody anticipated the world that we’re in now.”
Jacob Bell contributed.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose
Ships and planes by the numbers
1990 – 529
Now – 272
1990 – 3,874
Now – 5,285
*Includes Air Force, Navy and Marines
Sources: Navy History and Heritage Command, Defense Department Budgets