As part of it’s response to the so-called “sequester” across-the-board spending cuts mandated by Congress in 2011, the Navy decided this year to retire one of it’s ten nuclear-powered supercarriers, the USS George Washington. The Congress immediately erupted – across party lines – by forbidding the Navy to do it, and appropriating a token amount to keep the carrier active, declaring solemnly, “We will NOT allow the Navy to jeopardize our national security!” Translation from Washingtonese: “Even though our indiscriminate budget axe [the sequester] gave the Navy no choice to begin with, we’re not taking the political heat for it.”
Well, here’s news for the clueless among our leaders in Washington. Keeping the George Washington active will in fact jeopardize our national security. Those of us who were serving in our 1970s armed forces immediately recognize what we’re headed for – again. It’s what was called the “hollowed out” military. That meant then, and is about to mean now, keeping up and in front of the public the outward and visible signs of military capability – such as an aircraft carrier – while starving the not-so-visible but critical support systems – training, maintenance and personnel.
For example, in the late 1970s, in order to keep up the political appearance of supporting NATO in its standoff against the Soviet Army in Europe, Congress funded new and very expensive Spruance class destroyers. But the Navy had to literally park them at the dock because the money to man and maintain them was not appropriated. That’s what a hollowed out force looks like: a strong face and a weak core.
Another example from the past and one from very recently: Inadequate or shoddy maintenance and training resulted in the loss of nearly half of the Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters assigned to the 1980 attempt to rescue the Tehran Embassy hostages, and the operation had to be cancelled. In recent months, three high-maintenance Navy helicopters have crashed for unannounced reasons. Sounds like “déjà vu all over again” to many of us.
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Here’s the bottom line: A decision to downsize our armed forces, while certainly controversial and subject to serious debate, is nevertheless a legitimate, acceptable, public policy alternative. What’s not acceptable is for Congress to work its usual political sleight of hand by trying to have it both ways – visible hardware but no money to use it. That is dangerous. A decommissioned aircraft carrier is not – as long as Congress quits playing its usual shell games and provides the rest of the force, however reduced in size, with the money to be fully trained and ready.
The writer lives in Myrtle Beach and is a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve.