Obama’s State-of-The-Union Speech Misses Opportunity to Address Defense Challenges


2015-01-26 By Richard Weitz and Robbin Laird

In his January 20 State-of-the-Union address, which focused overwhelmingly on domestic politics, President Barack Obama made a number of claims about the success of his foreign and defense policies.

Among those policies cited were the following:

  • Halting the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) without the United States’ engaging in another major ground war in the Middle East,
  • Ending the US combat mission in Afghanistan in December,
  • Compelling China to adhere to “play by the rules” and punished Russia for failing to do so,
  • Making diplomatic progress with Cuba and Iran, and
  • ReassuringUS allies by “stand[ing] strong and united” with U.S. allies to address their security and other concerns.

The President clearly highlighted how he viewed his foreign policies as a success.

That is why he offered so many implicit comparisons with what he sees as his predecessor’s unilateral and military-first approach, and why he eschewed commenting on Yemen, Turkey, cyber security, nuclear disarmament and arms control, Middle East peace, and other issues where the administration’s achievements have fallen short of its declared goals.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) watch as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015.   REUTERS/Larry Downing
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) watch as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Unfortunately, the US approach to Syria is not working either; Iraqi leaders are complaining about inadequate US assistance; the administration still adheres to a schedule-determined drawdown from Afghanistan rather than conditions-based withdraw despite what happened in Iraq; the preoccupation with sanctions and diplomacy risks diverting attention from concrete Russian and Iranian gains in military capacity; Islamists don’t seem to hate us less; US allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East deeply doubt US security guarantees; and those who wish the United States will continue to ignore the administration’s “red lines” as lacking credibility.

Perhaps the most serious defect is the president’s failure to call for an end to defense sequestration, which could return as early as this October, when the new fiscal year begins.

The process has lowered readiness, limited operations, undermined predictable planning, prevented needed modernization and upgrades, and risks inflicting long-term damage on US capabilities and credibility that will transcend the Obama administration.

Obama expressed satisfaction in overseeing a sustained U.S. economic recovery, but did not note the opportunity this provides to end the disastrous sequestration strictures, which will return next year without congressional action.

Sequestration is not a policy but a disruptive force undermining credible 21st century defense efforts.

Among other problems, their original premises–such as an expected decreasing demand for US military power and the gambit that confronting the Congress with a suicidal alternative would force Republicans and Democrats to comprise and reduce spending and raise taxes–have been overtaken by events.

Indeed, the Administration’s own offset and nuclear revitalization plans cannot succeed without major and sustained spending increases.

Having good economic and diplomatic tools is important, but without hard-power capabilities they often lack enduring impact.

Although the Army has recovered from 2013, when only 10% of its forces were ready to deploy, even today only 33% of Army units are “appropriately ready” to respond to present contingencies, less than half the optimal level.

According to Army Secretary John McHughes, “We have come some significant distance on restoring our readiness over the last two years thanks to some relief that Congress has provided us,” he said. “But at ’16, should sequestration return, all the progress that we’ve made … will be lost. You can add to that our modernization programs, our family programs. Virtually no corner of the Army would be untouched in a negative way should sequestration remain on the books”

Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno more bluntly warns that. “If sequestration occurs, for the next three to four to five years, we’re moving towards a hollow Army”

Full implementation of sequestration could require the Army to cuts its end strength to 420,000 active-duty soldiers.

Ideally, the Congress will also support the Army request to be allowed to stretch out the planned reduction of US active-duty soldiers to 450,000 (from 490,000 by the end of FY2015) by another year beyond FY2017. The Army is straining to meet its mission requirements even with current numbers.

According to Hughes, 9 of 10 of its division headquarters are now deployed outside the United States, striving to address unplanned missions in Africa, Europe, and Iraq. According to Odierno, some 45,000 soldiers are deployed on foreign missions, while another 80,000 are forward stationed around the world. And a major war could break out in Korea or some other of these locations at any time.

The Navy faces similar problems.

According to Sean J. Stackley, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition, the service faces serious challenges in the rising costs of modern weaponry; growing demands for crisis response, forward presence, and strategic deterrence; and more serious competition from Russia and China, which are rapidly increasing the size and capabilities of their fleets. “

In fact, on any given day since 9/11, nearly half of our fleet has been underway and of that number 100 ships have steadily been on deployment,” Stackley told the Atlantic Council earlier this month. “

The demand for naval presence has risen as the Navy has taken on greater responsibility for missions ranging from sea-based missile defense first in the Sea of Japan, more recently in the Eastern Mediterranean, to anti-piracy in the Indian Ocean, and humanitarian assistance wherever disaster occurs” [http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/congress-should-reverse-strictures-on-us-defense-spending-stackley-says]

The Navy is trying to manage as best it can by relaxing requirements, cutting capabilities, extending mature technologies, and helping its industry partners by making Navy demands more stable even while making multi-year contracts and sustaining competition by suppliers.

The USAF is at a crossroads.

It is about to undergo a serious transformation as the global fleet of F-35s enter the force, and shifts its attention from providing support to the US Army on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, to now deal with global threats which require significant air power capabilities.

Training is crucial for this transition yet all of the airpower services have faced significant cuts in training, which undercuts the ability of these services to execute their missions.

As one analyst has noted:

Pilots and maintainers of today’s and tomorrow’s fleets are handling more complex aircraft than ever before in history. For pilots, this requires significant proficiencies that go beyond simply being a competent “flyer” of an airplane – they are becoming key C2, ISR and strike assets, all in one. Clearly, training is crucial to dealing with the growth in complexity.

As General Hostage, the recent U.S. commander of Air Combat Command, said in a recent interview: “What we’re asking a young lieutenant to do in her first two or three years as a fighter pilot is so far beyond what they asked me to do in my first two to three years, it’s almost embarrassing. The things we require of her, the things she has to be able to do, the complexity of the system that she operates, are so much more taxing, and yet, they make it look easy; they’re really, really good. Training, training, training comes to mind as a requirement for dealing with today’s and the coming air systems, which are managed by the fighter combat managers in their cockpits.”

Another example of complexity is in the execution of ever-more-stringent Rules of Engagement for pilots in combat; this can only demand more training, not less. Politicians and strategists can invent a wide range of engagements for the military – which our young men and women are required to execute as flawlessly as possible – yet funding for training is not seen as a crucial correlate for such missions. 

Both the US Navy and US Air Force are working hard to integrate missile defenses within their overall air engagements as well.  The integration of Army Air Defense systems with those of the USAF and the USN takes money, time and training.

The Navy’s requirement is for more Aegis-equipped ships with SM-3 interceptors, while the Army needs more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries. They both need more Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance and Control (AN/TPY-2) systems, which can be used either to supply fire-control data to ship-based Aegis missile defense systems or to provide the fire-control radar for the THAAD system.

And the USMC is undergoing a fundamental transition whereby under the influence of the Osprey it has become a global force, which can engage at much greater distance from the area of interest.  The USN-USMC team is revolutionizing its amphibious fleet with the addition not only of the Osprey but the coming of the F-35B starting this year.

And both the USN and USMC need more funding for ships.  The USS Ford is a significant shift from the Nimitz and fits 21st century requirements much more effectively and there is a clear need to move from first of class to continuing to build out a ship which will deliver cost effective capabilities over time.

The same is true for the USS America which is a large deck amphibious ship which will carry the 21st century USMC into harm’s way and more of this class of ship can be built enabling the USN-USMC team to play a more effective common role.

The USMC is being spread over the Pacific and needs more connectors, such as the KC-130J.

A 21st century strategy is being put in place by the US military but it is not adequately being resourced. 

It is fine to talk about a Pivot to the Pacific, but this costs money, and the Administration needs to provide leadership for the transition which it has called for.

Instead of proposing a series of domestic initiatives that the new Republican-led Congress is unlikely to enact, the President could have offered some concrete defense initiatives that would have won their backing.

Hopefully the administration can reverse course in its new National Security Strategy and DoD budget request, but Congress should be sure to raise them in its review of these documents as well as its confirmation hearings next month for Defense Secretary-designate Ashton Carter.

And the new Congress needs itself to demonstrate leadership and address any strategic shortfalls which the Administration is unwilling to address as well.