WASHINGTON – Here’s something for critics of the country’s defense budget to ponder: After I was confirmed as secretary of the navy in May 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked me and the other service secretaries to work with Congress to gain approval for a pending supplemental appropriation to the defense budget. This was not a war supplemental; it was still four months before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon was running out of money.
The navy did not have enough funding to steam ships or to fly airplanes for the rest of the fiscal year. Submarines were being deployed with many of their cruise-missile tubes empty. Warships could not deploy until test and repair equipment was transferred from ships returning to port.
The navy’s deferred maintenance account was billions of dollars in the red. Sailor and Marine Corps housing and bases were, literally, a mess. Military salaries were low, housing allowances below rental costs and medical facilities needed upgrades.
The army and air force were in similar straits. Ammunition stocks were dismally low and precision weapons a luxury. The peace dividends of the 1990s had left the military ill-equipped and ill-prepared for conflict — hardly a situation to be repeated in today’s uncertain and troublesome world. And hardly a way to treat our valiant warriors and their families.
Congress did pass the supplemental that summer, bringing the total 2001 defense budget to $310 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that is equivalent to about $423 billion today. By comparison, the Pentagon is requesting $525 billion for 2013.
Yes, that $102 billion delta is still a lot of money, but military salaries and benefits have increased almost 90 percent during this interval, and now consume a third of the budget.
Of course, the 2001 readiness supplemental didn’t fix any of the underlying problems. The poor state of military readiness resulted from years of budget cuts, and it took years of budget increases after 2001 to undo the short-sightedness of the 1990s.
Further, in contrast to the post-Cold War period, when our principal adversary had collapsed, there are many threats to U.S. security today. The nation is still in a shooting war in Afghanistan and will be through at least 2013. Iran and North Korea are obvious concerns. There is tension throughout the Middle East. Out in the Pacific we keep a close eye on China.
In response to all this, the nation’s military capabilities have been expanded. At home, a whole new command — the Northern Command — of people and equipment has been put in place to protect the nation from terrorist attacks. Guard and reserve forces have been upgraded with modern equipment. The Defense Department’s intelligence capabilities have been greatly enhanced. All of this took money — money added since 2001.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other Joint Chiefs deserve kudos for recognizing the nation’s overriding fiscal problems and for structuring a new defense strategy with a reduced budget to help offset our country’s unacceptable indebtedness. But they also recognize that the nation’s economic problems can’t be solved on the backs of the military.
The base defense budget, somewhat over 3 percent of our gross domestic product, isn’t the problem and can’t be the solution. They need to stand firm on this.
Further budget cuts will erode our security and put the country on a path toward another ill-equipped and ill-prepared military — as in 2001. It was unacceptable then, and unacceptable now.
Gordon England served twice as secretary of the navy in the George W. Bush administration and as deputy defense secretary under Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates.