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AEI National Security Resident Scholar Mackenzie Eaglen On The State Of The Defense Department In Today’s Dangerous World

Monday, March 3, 2014

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HH: Deadlines that Russia has laid down for the Crimean Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms are fast approaching. Don’t know if bullets will fly tonight. If they do, we will tell you about it. In the meantime, what ought America to be doing? I’m joined by Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Mackenzie, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.

ME: Thank you, my pleasure.

HH: Now on top of all this, we have the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s parliament saying today that all economic sanctions should be removed on Iran immediately. It looks as though the axis of bad guys has decided to act in concert. Is that how you’re reading it?

ME: I absolutely am reading it, and we basically have invited this through our own national security strategy, where the President has made it crystal clear that we don’t have a military that’s going to be sized any longer capable of doing more than one thing at one time. And it’s a really horrifying place to be, because if you don’t have, you know, a pointy end of the spear to back up your diplomacy and your sanctions, then the diplomacy and the sanctions really mean very little.

HH: Is there an opportunity, and I know you do work, great work at the Ware Center, but is there an opportunity for a new organization to step forward and organize around a reinvigorated American defense sector, do you think, Mackenzie?

ME: There is. I mean, there’s growing awareness now by, it’s not just something that conservatives or people on the right or Republicans are starting to take note of. I mean, there is a huge center here, you know, this sort of bipartisan consensus that we’ve had an America, really since the end of World War II, but it started to unravel after the end of the Cold War. It’s really dissipated, and it’s affecting everything. And you know, Democrats and Republicans are uncomfortable with the lack of American leadership in the world and the dismantling of our military capabilities, because you can’t say an economic superpower, but not a military superpower, I would argue, because you need to be able to back up, again, the strength of your economy as an insurance policy. So there really is an outcry. I would go so far as to describe it as an outcry of people looking for someone and something to help rebuild a vision now that could be implemented in 2016, but you know, still starting with this Congress and this Washington as it is and building up over time. And AEI is going to certainly be at the forefront of that, I hope.

HH: Now to begin to rebuild means to reject the Hagel budget of $522 billion. Will you put that budget in context, because even experienced people get confused because we’ve run two budgets over the last dozen years – a Defense Department budget and a war budget. They still think that war budget is out there, and I believe it’s gone. What are we on schedule to spend total on DOD operations this year if Chuck Hagel has his way, and how does that compare with our historic levels of spending?

ME: We’ve really, truly his a historic low point in our Defense budget. Now the war budget’s not coming out this week, because the President has yet to decide or work out with Karzai what our troop levels in Afghanistan are going to be for the future. And so the possibility of zero U.S. forces is one right now, and so nobody knows what that will look like. I estimate we’ll get a war budget of $40-60 billion come over along with this base, everyday peacetime budget of our military that you just outlined. It’s roughly, depending on how you look at it, $500-522 billion. So we’re under $600 billion dollars, and that’s a lot of money when I look at what those dollars are buying us. We’re getting a lot less today. And then as a percentage of the federal budget, our Defense spending is at a historic low. We’re going to hit, we’re at 17% now, and we’re going to keep dropping. And as a percentage of the size of our economy, meaning what can we afford as Americans to invest in our insurance policy, in our military, and we’ve hit 3% of gross domestic product, and that is an historic low that we have not seen in modern times. And it truly does reflect, like I said, these declining capabilities. And Hagel’s the face of this budget, but this is Obama’s budget. He’s been heading in this direction since the first day he came into office. He said I’m going to take the Defense budget down to somewhere in the neighborhood of two and some change percent of GDP, for example, 2% of our economy. And we’re already spending less than 20 cents on the dollar for this capability. So this has been a long-projected plan of his. And not just Americans are picking up on how worrisome this is, but now the whole world is watching us, and they see exactly what is happening. And our allies are worried, and our enemies are excited.

HH: Now Mackenzie Eaglen, going back to pre-9/11 budget to our last pre-attack on New York/Washington and in the skies over Pennsylvania budget, where were we as a percentage of GDP as a percentage of Defense federal spending and in total dollars? Where are we, what’s the parabola look like that we’ve traveled?

ME: Well, you know, let me put it even in a bigger context. You know, American always disarms after war, and that’s sort of what everyone expects to happen. And so we’ve done that after every major conflict of the last century, five times, and even after the Cold War, which was not a hot shooting war as you know, but had plenty of conflict other places. And so we always draw down. But this drawdown is very, very unique, because we still have tens of thousands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the drawdown started four years ago. And we have a military that’s much smaller, albeit in a lot of ways, they’re more capable than in previous years, but if I just go back to the 1990s when President Clinton started the Defense drawdown, you know, he left office with a balanced budget, and it was mostly through Defense cuts in how he achieved that. And President Obama seems to be borrowing from that playbook as well, although the balanced budget part is where they would differ. The two men, President Obama would put that money back into domestic discretionary spending, but nonetheless, in the 90s, when the Defense budget fell, it was in the neighborhood of 3% GDP, but it was not this low. We have a bigger economy today, and so therefore, we have a smaller Defense budget relative to these two decades. And we have a smaller military than just in the 90s, and remember, our military’s a lot more busy today. We, the military that Clinton left office, that he left behind, it was one that was supposedly the peace dividend, if you’ll recall.

HH: Yes.

ME: And we weren’t going to really use the military anymore. And so we thought it was going to be a quiet, relatively safer period of time. And the fact that our military is smaller now when every senior intelligence officer in the Obama administration says I’ve never seen the world more unstable, I’ve never seen more crises in my history in government, I’ve never seen…Hagel called the world combustible. To think that we could have a military smaller than what we thought we needed in the 90s when the world was at “peace”, is really a remarkable turnaround.

HH: Now Mackenzie Eaglen, people used to get Time Magazine, and they would show the number of ships that we had vis-à-vis Russians, the number of troops vis-à-vis the Soviets, the number of airplanes, all that stuff. That’s all gone. No one really has a frame of reference. And we have to rebuild that frame of reference to a goal to which a budget can move regardless of the red ink attached to it, in my view, because it’s the first function of the government. But have you done the work to say look, for a Pacific-facing power against a blue water capable Peoples Republic of China, taking into account the assets that our allies have available, whether those allies are really good allies like Australia, or sort of good allies like India, do you have in your mind, is there a consensus among Defense intellectuals, of where we need to be when it comes to ships and planes?

ME: We’ve done the work before, but the drawdown has been so rapid under Obama, we’re having to go back and revisit that work. And we’re doing it right now. So for example, we are trying to do the analysis, you know, President Obama in January of 2012, his Defense guide, it’s basically a pivot to Asia, you’ll recall. And while that alone is not, that’s a fine thing to do, and I actually don’t disagree with that. But it was really at the expense of the rest of the world. So we have no ships anymore in U.S. Southern Command in all of Latin America, where all of our counterdrug missions and a lot of counterterror missions are taking place. We don’t have intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets and drones and satellite capabilities over Africa, which we all know is spawning huge terrorism problems right now.

HH: Hold that thought, Mackenzie Eaglen. We’ll be right back after the break.

— – – – – –

HH: Before we went to the break, we were talking about what we don’t have. We’re one less great American pilot who lost his life yesterday at Fallon in Northern Nevada. And F-18 went down with him at the controls. So obviously attrition, terrible things happen every day. Our military wears down and breaks. So Mackenzie, you were saying when we’re going to have this new blueprint, I know you’re working on it, when is there going to be something that pro-Defense Republicans and the one or two pro-Defense Democrats that are left can seize on and say this is our minimum requirement?

ME: Well, I promise I will be the first to give you a call when it’s done, but the work is ongoing. And we’ve been building this case for years, because the President’s been in office for over four years now, we’re in year five, and so this has been a trend underway that’s worrying people like you and me constantly. And so we have a lot of the work done already, including some charts and things that look back over time that you were talking about, because we do need some sort of powerful pictorial representations of what’s happening, not just a bunch of words on paper, and to describe this sort of slow dismantling of capabilities that Americans have come to appreciate for a generation, or actually two, in many cases, things that we can no longer take for granted as we reach parity with other powers around the world. We have a contract with our troops. We don’t like to go to war, but if we do, it’s not a fair fight. And I argue we are reneging on that contract right now, and that’s really, really worrisome. So we…just take the Navy. It’s always a really great example for a snapshot in time to represent our own strength. We’re basically at a 285, give or take, ship Navy right now. You’ll remember in the 80s, President Reagan, his build up, the goal was a 600 ship Navy under Secretary John Lehman of the Navy. We’ve come a long ways. The Pentagon will say well, that doesn’t matter, because ships are more capable. Sure, that is absolutely right. But the world is no smaller, and the oceans are just as big, and we have to still be everywhere all the time to protect our interests and avoid war. And when you have a Navy that’s shrinking as fast as ours, along with all of the other services, you’re inviting the kind of trouble that we see overseas right now.

HH: Now let me ask you the big, big question. Within the Republican Party, there is a significant, though by no means majoritarian position, that the national debt is more of a danger to the country than any external threat, and we have to get our red ink down to 1% or 2% of GDP before we do anything. I think that’s wrong. I just wonder is anyone articulating that, that our first expenditure, even if it means more red ink, has to be on a fleet and on an air force, and on a Marine Corps and a standing army before we worry about red ink?

ME: Absolutely. And you know, it’s a growing, it’s becoming a growing majority, I think, on the right, thankfully. It’s not that, those two forces don’t have to be at odds with each other, because there are plenty of places in government that need to shrink and need to come down. Just not this area, not the Defense Department, not the hard power capabilities and the combat power of our military, because you know, we use it again for so many things, including peacetime missions. So the good news is I actually think everybody’s so alarmed by President Obama’s budget proposal, this latest one is just really the sort of exclamation point to what’s been underway, and it’s caught the attention of a lot of people in Washington, and there is thinking that we’re going to have to focus on our fiscal sanity a little differently, meaning we’re going to have to prioritize. And the Defense Department should not be at the bottom, and that’s exactly where it is right now. And there are other places in the federal government that you can achieve both. You know, you can restore combat power, and you can achieve debt reduction as well.

HH: Do you expect, with a minute left, and I hope this is the first of many conversations, Mackenzie Eaglen, that the Congress will plus up Secretary Hagel’s proposals significantly so as to keep at least the slide somewhat arrested?

ME: Well, that’s where the President has us in a box, because Obama’s not stupid. He sent over a plus up for his own Defense budget, basically saying his own Defense budget is inadequate to meet the nation’s needs, because he proposed spending an additional $26 billion in the base, peacetime Defense budget. But to get to that deal, Congress would have to plus up non-Defense federal agencies. And they, we’re just talking about the celebration in Washington of the stimulus passing four years ago. You know, every agency but the Defense Department saw almost $800 billion dollars cash infusion. So any reductions they’ve been taking have been coming from this really high high in the past. And so anyway, it’s a problem. Congress is going to have to actually be smart about this, and in a midterm election year, we’re asking them to do a lot. I don’t think they’re going to get any budget passed before November. However, things will change, and they will have to do something when they return, and I am hopeful that they can plus up Defense. But we’ve come down so far, I don’t want to make anyone think that this one time infusion could actually turn this ship around. It’s going to take years to rebuild.

HH: And your efforts are very much appreciated in that years long effort, Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. I hope you start showing up everywhere, not just in the halls of AEI, spreading this message, always welcome here on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.

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