A Military Teetering on the “Ragged Edge”

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House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) held a hearing on the state of the military this week. The conclusion is stark: the U.S. military is at a breaking point. Today. Right now.

None of America’s armed forces can meet all of the global demands placed on them by commanders today. Were an unforeseen crisis to arise quickly, the military is simply not ready to respond.

In meeting the vast commitments to the Central Command region, the services are “on the edge,” or “on the ragged edge,” depending on which branch you ask. Across the military, long-standing readiness problems are worsening; breakdowns are happening more frequently.

As the Navy’s No. 2 told Congress: “The stress on the force is real. And it has been relentless.”

A snapshot of Navy readiness highlights the problem. Today’s Navy is experiencing extreme levels of stress. While the fleet has shrunk by about 15 percent since 1998, the number of ships deployed overseas has remained constant at about 100. Each ship goes to sea longer and more often, resulting in problems such as the well-publicized shortfalls in surface ship condition. With no surge capacity, each new casualty ripples through the schedules of dozens of ships.

As Congress considers many proposals to cut significant amounts from the military’s budget, the Army vice highlighted the consequences: “An era of reductions carries risk, and with reductions we won’t be able to do everything we do today.”

The idea that the military will be far less busy after Iraq and Afghanistan is gaining steam as conventional wisdom in Washington. But the service leaders made it clear to Congress that there is serious pent-up demand for the military beyond current conflicts. Their “backlog” of other requirements that span the globe will consume significant resources and manpower even after the last soldier leaves both countries.

Is the nation prepared to accept a Marine Corps unable to evacuate Americans from countries in turmoil like during the recent Arab Spring uprisings? Or an Air Force that can’t rescue military personnel behind enemy lines? Or a Navy that can’t send ships to aid tsunami and earthquake victims?

Defense cuts of the magnitude being tossed around Washington will require genuine mission trade-offs. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that the military will continue to do everything the nation asks — only with fewer people and rusting resources.