North Korea is making alarming progress in its ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons programs. Russia and China are developing and fielding advanced weapons against which the U.S. may not be able to defend. Al Qaeda operates in more countries than ever. Islamic State is targeting the West and launching attacks throughout Europe and the Middle East. Iran is supporting terrorist organizations across the globe, modernizing its ballistic-missile and other capabilities and likely continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee last week that the U.S. is losing the military edge on which our security has long relied: “Today, every operating domain—including outer space, air, sea, undersea, land and cyberspace—is contested.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seconded that worry in written testimony for the same hearing: “Without sustained, sufficient and predictable funding,” he wrote, “I assess that within five years we will lose our ability to project power; the basis of how we defend the homeland, advance U.S. interests, and meet our alliance commitments.”
In short, the situation President Trump inherited is dire. America today faces an array of threats more serious and complex than at any time in the past 75 years.
President Obama and his policies are largely to blame. The 2011 Budget Control Act, which mandated across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, at a time when threats were growing, has also done serious damage. “No enemy in the field,” Mr. Mattis told lawmakers, “has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration.”
What have eight years of Mr. Obama’s policies, and six years of the Budget Control Act, wrought? The military superiority America relied on after the end of the Cold War has been seriously eroded, our capabilities diminished. In the past three months alone, military leaders have testified that:
• The Army is “outranged, outgunned, outdated,” with only three of 58 brigade combat teams ready to “fight tonight.”
• The Navy is the smallest and least ready it has been in modern times. Fewer than half the Navy’s aircraft can fly because so many are grounded for maintenance or because they lack spare parts.
• The Air Force is the oldest and smallest it has ever been, and less than half of its combat forces are sufficiently ready to fight tonight.
• The Marine Corps is insufficiently manned, trained and equipped across the depth of the force.
Rebuilding America’s defenses will require a massive, concerted and long-term effort that must begin today. Mr. Trump rightly promised to do this during last year’s presidential election. Unfortunately, the White House budget submitted to Congress earlier this month fails to provide the necessary resources.
The White House has requested only 3% more funding for defense than Mr. Obama’s proposed 2018 budget, meaning the Pentagon would essentially tread water for at least a year—time the U.S. cannot spare in this threat environment. Instead of leading the effort to repeal the Budget Control Act, the White House budget envisions extending it by six years, to 2027. The president’s budget also cuts funding in absolutely essential areas, including $300 million from missile defense and $1 billion from Navy shipbuilding. In sum, the 2018 White House defense budget differs little from what Mr. Obama would have requested were he still president.
If Congress is serious about providing the resources necessary to defend the nation, lawmakers must do two things: pass a base defense budget for fiscal 2018 of at least $640 billion, instead of the $603 billion the White House requested; and repeal the Budget Control Act to eliminate the arbitrary spending caps and devastating sequestration.
The figure of $640 billion comes from the House and Senate Armed Services committees, which over the past year have conducted in-depth analyses and concluded this is the amount necessary in 2018 to begin rebuilding the military. This figure is a floor, not a ceiling.
For context, compare it with the projections from the Pentagon’s fiscal 2012 budget. Because this was the last budget prepared prior to the Budget Control Act, it was also the last one based on assessing the threats America faces and what would be needed to meet them. It projected a base defense budget of $661 billion for 2018. That assessment was made before Islamic State arose in the Middle East, before North Korea’s recent progress on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, before Russia invaded Ukraine, before China’s aggression in the South China Sea, and before Mr. Obama’s indefensible nuclear agreement with Iran.
Rebuilding the military is not a one-year project. To undo the damage of the Obama era and provide for America’s security in a world of increasingly threatening adversaries, Congress must dedicate itself to providing significant resources for many years to come.
Providing for the defense of America is the most sacred constitutional obligation of the U.S. Congress. If Congress fails in this, no balanced budget, no health-care reform, no tax reform, no entitlement reform will matter. If lawmakers fail to provide the resources necessary for the defense of the nation, nothing else they do will matter.
By Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney Mr. Cheney was vice president, 2001-09. Ms. Cheney is Wyoming’s U.S. representative.