Monday, January 16, 2023


As we watched the tumultuous discussions and votes to elect a new Republican leader of the House of Representatives, one could not help but ask: “Is this the Republican Party we’ve come to understand? Is this the same party that proudly fought for a strong national defense and the people that represent this country in uniform?”

The concessions that were made to elect a new House speaker will clearly prove problematic. One is especially troublesome and should concern every American as our national security will be put at risk — the concession that would cap discretionary spending at fiscal 2022 levels.

In fiscal 2022, the defense budget was $780 billion. In 2023, a bipartisan Congress agreed to an $850 billion budget. But a concession capping discretionary spending at fiscal 2022 levels could mean a possible $70 billion cut to defense.

When have we ever seen Republicans allowing such a dramatic cut to the defense budget? Just a few months ago, both political parties agreed in truly bipartisan fashion to a record level of spending to meet the global threats our nation faces. Such a concession will have global implications.

The threats the world faces are no longer singular. The Cold War is long over, but now the threats come from several authoritarian countries and their leaders — China, Russia, North Korea and Iran being the most obvious. Some would discount Russia after its abysmal performance in Ukraine, but it still must not be overlooked.

China, of course, poses the most severe threat to the new world order. China is the only country currently able to dethrone America as the world’s preeminent power. Its military is growing exponentially. Its navy is already the world’s largest, and its air force the third-largest.

A recent Department of Defense report on China’s military power warns that along with building a large force of space weapons, China is on pace to expand its nuclear stockpile from about 400 nuclear warheads to 1,500 in 2035.

In addition, a recent bipartisan report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission says China has engaged in a massive buildup of cyber capabilities and poses a formidable threat to the U.S. in cyberspace. The report says China has 10 times as many troops dedicated to this capability as the U.S.

China has shown how confident and brazen it is with its new and growing military capability. Shortly after congressional approval of the National Defense Authorization Act in December, China sent 70 planes and seven ships toward Taiwan in a 24-hour show of force. Then, after new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was sworn in, China sent nearly 60 warplanes around Taiwan. About half of the aircraft reportedly entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Mr. McCarthy has said he will visit Taiwan just as his predecessor, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, did.

North Korea also poses a global threat. Leader Kim Jong Un says his country needs a 6% increase in defense spending, including an “exponential” increase in nuclear weapons and a new intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea test-launched 90 various cruise and ballistic missiles last year. A U.N. Security Council resolution bans North Korea from testing ballistic missiles — a ban the country ignores.

In congressional testimony late last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Iran poses an escalating threat to the U.S. He said Tehran is “becoming more aggressive and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before.” He noted that Iran employs a growing range of tactics to advance its interests and to harm the U.S. The U.N., meanwhile, reported last year that Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium has grown to roughly enough material for a nuclear weapon.

Whenever there are discussions about defense cuts, the typical sound bites often turn to “public relations” staffing, cutting the number of flags and general officers, or the current pincushion, “woke policies.” Any efforts affecting these programs would yield minimal savings at best. The reality is that cuts in defense spending would result in a diminution of readiness and the ability of our military to respond to the threats to our security. Current readiness levels are troublesome — and cannot afford to go lower.

For example, the Air Force has spent the last four years pushing to prepare its planes for war. It has gained virtually no ground. The Government Accountability Office reported last year that it examined 49 aircraft, and only four met their annual mission-capable goals from 2011 to 2021. Twenty-six did not. A mission capable rate is the percentage of time when an aircraft can fly and perform at least one mission. It’s used to assess the health of an aircraft fleet.

The Navy’s situation is also of concern. A Navy command dedicated to examining ship readiness reported last year that there is a general decrease in the material condition across surface ships. Of 21 functional areas, it tested on surface ships, 14 areas tested below the six-year average.

The Navy just announced a program to keep ships combat-credible and ready. The program would keep 75 surface ships out of 164 in a deployable state. The Navy did not indicate how far the Navy is from the 75-ship goal. The officer heading the effort,  however, said the Navy has “work to do,” and the goal is achievable in two years. Two years is a long time until our ships will be combat-ready.

Meanwhile, while the Navy program gets underway, it continues to operate at a tempo seen in the Cold War — but with half the number of ships and a fleet older than China’s. Also of concern is the lack of shipyard capacity to not only build but maintain the fleet we have.

Our congressional leaders need to take a step back and ask themselves, “What have we done agreeing to such a budget concession that would possibly cut defense spending and preclude meeting our threats?”

Perhaps it would behoove them to listen to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s urgent call for an increase in Japanese defense spending. His call is the result of fears about China’s growing military strength, as well as threats from North Korea. The prime minister says increasing his country’s defense capabilities is “the most urgent challenge” in the current security environment and that China poses “the greatest strategic challenge ever” to its security. He characterized China’s military growth as the largest in history.

Every American, including congressional members, should share the prime minister’s concern.

• Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral and a board member of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America, which advocates a strong national defense and for military service members. He is the author of “The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.” The opinions expressed are his own.

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