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Former Missouri Senator Jim Talent On The Need To Plus Up Our Defense Budget

Saturday, March 15, 2014

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HH: I begin today’s show as well with former United States Senator Jim Talent, Senator Talent now with the Heritage Foundation, one of our favorite analysts on all matters military. And I want to talk with him today about the Defense budget that is being crafted for FY 2015. But I begin, Senator Talent, by asking you how close have you been following Malaysian Air 370 and what’s it tell you?

JT: Well, I’ve been following it as everybody else has, and just what you said a little while ago, Hugh, is what I concluded. We don’t know. And so really the question is why don’t we know? I mean, it seems impossible that an aircraft of this size, commercial aircraft, could just disappear and nobody’d have any idea how it happened or why it happened. I’m mystified.

HH: I’ve got to tell you, when I was reading the piece that you and Jon Kyl wrote late last year, A Strong And Focused National Security Strategy, which I have posted over at Hughhewitt.com, co-authored by Senators Kyl and Talent, and put forward by the Heritage Foundation and AEI together, and I got back to Page 21 of the report. Today, the Navy has 283 ships. The current plan is to build around 8 ships a year for the next five years. Eventually, we’re headed to 240-250. At that level, America will not have a global Navy. You know, Senator Talent, we’re getting updates, I just saw Wolf Blitzer talking with the commander of a destroyer out in the Indian Ocean. As we shrink our fleet, we shrink our ability to do anything significant in all of these areas.

JT: Yeah, that’s correct. And you know, as many of your listeners know, because you talk a lot about Defense, but as probably most people don’t know, at any given time, you can only keep about a third of your ships at sea. I mean, they have to, the sailors have to rest, the ships have to be maintained. So you know, we struggle today to keep almost a hundred ships deployed, really haven’t been able to in the last year or two. So we’re headed down to 75 or 80 ships deployed. Now to give you an idea of the shortfall, the Chinese by 2020 are going to have somewhere between 310 and probably closer to 350 ships. They’re going to be modern, the vast majority of them multi-mission and concentrated in the Western Pacific. So you can see the shortfall that we’re looking at. And you know, the Department’s response recently is to claim we’re going to get to 300 ships, but that’s because their changing the way that we’re counting ships.

HH: Yup.

JT: You read that, I’m sure.

HH: Yeah, yesterday, I had on the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Defense of the House Committee of Appropriations, Rodney Frelinghuysen, and I had a Democratic member, Tim Ryan, of the same committee on. They’re resigned to this Hagel budget, and I say resigned in that the chairman said there’s nothing we can do, these are the numbers, and Tim Ryan said there’s nothing we should do, these are the numbers, we just have to make them work. But you and Senator Kyl, your report, A Strong And Focused National Security Strategy, says that is back you-know-what words, that you can’t do it that way.

JT: Well, and I don’t like the attitude that this is like the weather, it’s just something imposed upon us. These numbers are what they are because of choices that were made. And you know, three years ago, Secretary, then-Secretary Gates proposed his last set of budgets, which had modest nominal dollar increases in the Defense budget. It really went, I was disappointed with it at the time. And since then, the President and the Congress have cut close to $100 billion dollars per year from the Defense budget, and they did it with no analysis whatsoever of the impact on national security. Now I understand for any given member, that as an individual member they may feel there’s nothing they can do. But I do think that the top level political authorities, as institutions, you know, the institution of the Congress and the President need to accept responsibility for the decisions that they made. And these are decisions that were made, and they’re decisions that can be reversed.

HH: That is the key part, decisions that can be reversed. Perhaps the most important line of your report reads, and again, it’s from the end at Page 27, “The budget cuts of the past two years made with no pretense of military analysis can only be understood as the final and terrible consequence of a generation of strategic drift.” In other words, we’re not working backwards from what we need. We might need 20 ships right now in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea. We’ve got two or three of them because of choices we make that we did not have to make and that we can unmake, correct, Senator?

JT: That’s exactly right, and we’ve got, you know, the Eastern Mediterranean’s another place we have five ships. And we need more, because America’s a nation with tremendous national interest. I’m not talking here about, you know, tertiary interest. I’m talking about protection of the homeland from attack, freedom of trade and travel on the seas and in the air, carrying out our treaty obligations that we’ve made, and preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction around the world. Now there’s lots of tools that we use that would achieve that, and we make that point in the article. But the foundation of them all is the hard power tools as embodied in the military, and we’ve allowed them to atrophy. And this, you know, Hugh, if you count the stimulus, which as you know went entirely to the non-Defense discretionary budget, or virtually entirely, and there’s no reason not to count it, the Defense budget’s the only part of the federal budget that has been cut in the last five years.

HH: Yeah, that’s remarkable. I’m talking with former United States Senator Jim Talent about the woeful condition of our military. And this week’s hearing yesterday did nothing to change it. So Senator, is there a growing consensus among political elites, not necessarily elected, that this has got to change, and including people on the other side of the aisle. You always got along well, worked well, very solid conservative, but you worked well with both sides of the aisle. This can’t be done as a political rhetorical thing, or it won’t get done.

JT: Well, that’s exactly correct. And there’s really not a whole lot of reason it should be intensely partisan, because the kinds of threats that we’re opposing, or that we’re trying to protect against, are things that everybody admits are threats. And we’re in a rising threat environment. Hugh, we’re trying to protect the United States with an Armed Forces that’s substantially smaller than it was 20 years ago, with a much older inventory of equipment. And think of how many threats we’ve acquired in the last 20 years that didn’t exist in the 1990s. I mean, the whole global war on terror, the huge Chinese build up. China’s already a peer military competitor of the United States, and at the current trends, they’re going to be the dominant power in the Western Pacific by 2020. The North Korean nuclear program didn’t exist, the Iranian nuclear program didn’t exist, we didn’t have the Middle East deteriorating into a huge, you know, Sunni-Shia conflict. I mean, the lists goes on and on, and we’re weaker than we were. So the point is, our capabilities have declined relative to the risk, and that’s the key thing.

HH: There is a force comparison chart in your report. For benefit of the audience, in 1997 when the Quadrennial Defense Review came out, we had 216,000 Marines. In 2010 when the most recent until now Quadrennial came out, we had 243,000 Marines. This week in a different committee, I saw General Amos testifying we’ll make do, because you’ll make us make do, with 175,000 Marines. So this is, that’s just one constant. That’s the whole story across the Quadrennial Defense Review process which just came out. I think you’re part of the review board of the Quadrennial Defense View, aren’t you?

JT: Right. The National Defense Panel is studying that, and we’re going to issue a report. The first National Defense Panel that met after the QDR in 2010, I was on that one as well, recommended unanimously, and this was a bipartisan panel of 20 people headed by Bill Perry and Stephen Hadley, recommended unanimously that the Navy be increased to approximately 350 ships, and that all three of the services be recapitalized. I mean, the Air Force is flying aircraft with average age of the airframe is about 25 years old. It’s the smallest and the oldest in terms of its aircraft that it’s been since the inception of the service. The Marines at the time were bigger, because the Army and the Marines had been plussed up to deal with the two, with Iraq and Afghanistan. But as you know, they’re going down, the Marines to 180,000, and the Army to about 420,000, and probably lower than that. So all three of the services are going to be substantially smaller than they were 20 years ago in a world that’s substantially riskier for the United States.

HH: So with our two minutes left, and I hope that you’ll come back regularly each week, and we’re going to try and do that on Mondays of each week for a Defense story related to that, when does the review panel begin its work for this Quadrennial review, because that might be the pivot point on which people can come together on a serious strategy that from which a budget could be built?

JT: We’re already working, because the statute this time organized us while the QDR was in process. But now that it’s been issued, the real intense phase begins, and we’re supposed to issue our report within 90 days after the QDR came down. So I guess that would be the end of May that it’s due. Yes, I hope we can produce a consensus report. I think everybody feels that way, and everybody recognizes the difficult situation that we’re in. I mean, Hugh, all this matter. And that’s one of the points that we made in this article. Defense is important, because the United States has vital interests that, and we do have adversaries and enemies in the world. I mean, right now, we’re like a wealthy family living in a very bad neighborhood where there have been muggings and threats, and we’re cutting our security. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

HH: And I appreciate you being with me, Senator Talent, and I also hope everyone just looks at this, the scope of this search underway across the entire Pacific for one missing airline. It gives you a sense of how vast our reach has to be at any time for many, many purposes, not just the recovery of missing planes or typhoon relief, but to protect you and me. Senator Jim Talent, thanks very much. I’ve linked the study that you and Jon Kyl did at Hughhewitt.com.

End of interview.

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