The services forecast doom. Again

You can see it in the charts. Ships won’t sail, tanks won’t be repaired, troops at the front won’t have bullets. Summing it all up, America will become a second-rate power, the outgoing secretary of defense said at Georgetown last week. On Tuesday, the service chiefs will scatter themselves all over the Hill to spread ...

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You can see it in the charts.

Ships won't sail, tanks won't be repaired, troops at the front won't have bullets. Summing it all up, America will become a second-rate power, the outgoing secretary of defense said at Georgetown last week.

On Tuesday, the service chiefs will scatter themselves all over the Hill to spread the gospel, telling the Senate and House Armed Services Committees how truly, truly awful it will be if they lose 10 percent of their budget this year.

You can see it in the charts.

Ships won’t sail, tanks won’t be repaired, troops at the front won’t have bullets. Summing it all up, America will become a second-rate power, the outgoing secretary of defense said at Georgetown last week.

On Tuesday, the service chiefs will scatter themselves all over the Hill to spread the gospel, telling the Senate and House Armed Services Committees how truly, truly awful it will be if they lose 10 percent of their budget this year.

It’s overwhelming. Or, it was, until I started reading a paper delivered by Richard Kohn, professor emeritus from the University of North Carolina, former Air Force historian, and one of the most respected students of civil-military relations in the country.

Kohn makes a fundamental point: The military today is exceeding its mandate in publicly lobbying for its budgets and intruding into the debate over the U.S. role in global security. He argues that "this willingness — indeed, in some cases eagerness — to strive to shape public opinion and thereby affect decisions and policy outcomes is a dangerous development for the U.S. military and is extraordinarily corrosive of civilian control."

Kohn asks the tough question: "Is it proper for the four services, the regional commanders, or the Joint Chiefs every year to advocate to the public directly their needs for ships, airplanes, divisions, troops, and other resources, or their views on what percentage of the nation’s economy should go to defense as opposed to other priorities?"

Put another way, in the policy universe, the military service chiefs are risking their credibility by such naked promotion of their budgets and service interests. Yes, and they’ve been doing so for about 15 years now, encouraged by a Congress fighting partisan warfare.

In fact, what stimulated me was a footnote in the article — a footnote that sounded so strikingly familiar that today began to feel like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi would say. It was the headlines that grabbed me: "New Commandant Intends to Push for More Resources for Pentagon"; "Marine Commandant Calls for Defense Spending Increase"; "Outgoing 6th Fleet Commander Warns Fleet Size is Too Small"; "Admiral: Navy Pales to Past One"; "Senior Navy Officers: ‘We Need More Ships, Planes, Subs’"; "Budgets Need to Support Our Tasking"; "Help Keep This The Greatest Navy." They’re all from 1999 or 2000.

Sound familiar? Listen to what the service chiefs say Tuesday and it will. There is never enough; the budget can never be cut; we are losing our edge; sequester will weaken our military power.

The secretary should have reined them in, not unleashed them. The test for the services is not how well they advocate, nor how thoroughly they exaggerate the consequences of choice-making, nor how public they become. The test for the next secretary is how truthful he will be and how firmly he sets the tone for the department and the service chiefs. And the test for Congress is whether it can set partisanship aside and stop pulling the service chiefs into the fray as battering rams to flail away at the other side.

One can always hope.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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