The key to rebuilding the military and establishing American credibility internationally is getting back to a Washington that works and building a predictable budget for the Pentagon, the current chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a former defense secretary agreed Thursday.
Leon Panetta, who also served as CIA director and director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration, asked rhetorically “Is the Congress and the president going to govern” to resolve the issues of passing a budget on time, working on the long-term costs of entitlements, putting tax reform on the table and addressing the growing national debt?
All of these elements were open for discussion between Congress and the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Panetta said. The result was a balanced budget and later surplus but produced “something that gives you five years of numbers” for defense planning on weapons systems and personnel.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday, “We’ve got to rebuild the military” and “have got to work together.” He cited the continuing effects of the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act landing “disproportionately” on the Pentagon, the spending cuts made to meet those caps, the continuing high operating tempo of the armed services and Congress’ reliance on Continuing Resolutions to keep the government running until a budget is passed as factors in declining readiness.
Citing “high ops tempo and low morale” in the services, Panetta said at the Washington think tank forum, the Pentagon needs to have a personnel [structure] that isn’t locked into an up-and-out promotion system.
Reforming organizations and processes in the Pentagon were another area where the incoming administration and Congress need to work together, Thornberry said. During the past year, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees both held a series of hearings on overhauling the 30-year-old Goldwater-Nichols Act that created much of the current personnel system, Pentagon processes and authorities.
For now, on one major new organization, Cyber Command, Thornberry doesn’t want a change. He favors its commander continuing to serve as director of the National Security Agency as well.
In dealing with Russia, Panetta said, “You have to establish some lines and back them up,” as has been the case since the Truman Doctrine opposed Soviet expansion in the wake of World War II. “A lot of what you see today [in Ukraine and Syria] is Putin seeing U.S. weakness” in his goal to re-establish Russian control over former Soviet republics.
In addition to meeting the demands of hybrid warfare used by Russia in Ukraine with a stronger military, Thornberry said the United States should “be showing our system works” in the peaceful transfer of political power between President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump as an example to other countries.
The Islamic State continues to be a threat beyond the Middle East. Thornberry said that in defeating the Islamic State the situation in northern Iraq “is ugly and will get uglier” as the fighting pushes into the center of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Panetta added, “Our responsibility is to defeat ISIS” by pushing it “out of territory it occupies now” in Iraq and Syria. The United States needs to understand that the fighting in the two countries is a part of a larger counterterrorism struggle also taking place in Africa with Boko Haram, in Yemen with al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, Libya and other countries.
“We have not built a strategic coalition in the Middle East to take on ISIS” that involves the Arab Gulf States, Israel and NATO. That coalition “would be there when we defeat [ISIS] to provide a support system,” helping the Iraqis build a much more inclusive government where minority Sunnis feel they have a future in it.
Syria is more problematic, Thornberry said. Even if and when Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State falls to Turkish-backed and moderate forces opposing President Bashar al Assad, “there will still be a virtual caliphate.” Because of Russian air support, it “looks like Assad will stay [in power] as long as they want him to stay.”
Thornberry added, “We have to work with [the Russians] for long-term stability in Syria.”
On North Korea’s continued land- and sea-based ballistic missile testing and expanding nuclear weapons program, Panetta said, “We do have to set limits with them” because they are violating international law “every time they fire one.”
Thornberry noted that now is a delicate time in the Republic of Korea’s domestic politics. President Park Geun-hye has offered to resign her office as the possibility of impeachment looms.
“We will be tested” on the peninsula and in other areas, Panetta said as the administrations change in Washington.
Thornberry noted that the larger nuclear threat is also changing as Russia and China modernize their weapons and launch systems. “Our own nuclear deterrent has atrophied” and still relies on “1980s version weapons.”
Likewise in space, Panetta said China was heavily investing in the nuclear domain, challenging. “The country that controls space in many ways will dominate security issues in our world. We’ve got to compete in that arena.”