President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night will be dominated by his tax and spending proposals to help the middle class. But he’s bound to cover the challenges of combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the terror attacks in France and other western capitals and the need to beef up the U.S. military and homeland security to avert further attacks here.
In many ways, 2014 was supposed to be a transition away from a decade of brutal land warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq and back to a less challenging period with eased deployments, smaller forces and withdrawal from the Middle East and other hotspots.
Instead, the military was thrust into dealing with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic extremists’ attacks against civilians in Paris, Sydney and Ottawa, the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa, and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. Many in the Pentagon are fretting about fewer budget resources and the threat of another round of across-the-board cuts at a time when the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all complain about being stretched dangerously thin.
In advance of the president’s comments on these serious military challenges, here are the highlights of a comprehensive “State of Defense” report, as published by Defense One:
The Army began the fiscal year with 508,000 active duty troops and is now handling the steepest personnel cuts of any service: It lost more than 30,000 soldiers through cutbacks in each of the previous two years as the wars in Iraq and Afghan wound down. An additional 18,000 will be gone by October. President Obama opposes more U.S. “boots on the ground” in the fight against ISIS, but if he changes his mind, Army troops are likely to deploy to Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Russian intervention in Eastern Europe means more American troops and tanks there. Some fear the force is at a breaking point.
“Thirteen years of constant war has broken parts of our force and put tremendous strains on especially our Army and our Marines,” outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week in Fort Bliss, Texas. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who initially backed downsizing, now is fighting vigorously with lawmakers to avert additional cuts that could hollow out the force in the face of rapidly expanding threats in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
With a pivot to Asia and the Pacific and tensions in Europe and the Persian Gulf, the Navy’s mission is changing but not slowing. The Navy has about 100 ships at sea and is trying to revive its relationship with the Marine Corps and bring amphibious operations back to the forefront.
Last fall, the USS George H. W. Bush conducted airstrikes against ISIS. The Navy is also working on mobile landing platforms to help transfers between larger ships and smaller landing vessels. With drones a vital part of the U.S. military assault, there are plans to expand that substantially. But Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Defense One that six years of budget cuts has led to shortfalls in critical classes of ships and in the funding needed to handle shipbuilding and modernization plans.
The Air Force has been able to perform more missions at a faster pace using a mix of old and new aircraft. It’s flown the majority of more than 15,600 missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since last August and has conducted most of the 1,700-plus direct airstrikes.
Air Force intelligence from drones, satellites and manned aircraft have been critical. Air Force tankers have refueled U.S. and coalition fighter plans around the clock, Defense One reported. When Obama ordered strikes against ISIS to expand from Iraq to Syria in September, the radar-evading F-22 Raptor was used for the first time to evade Syrian air defenses.
The Air Force has been downsized substantially: It had 188 fighter squadrons during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s but has 54 today and is likely to have 49 in the coming years. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh cautioned the service cannot shrink below the 315,000 airmen it has today. On any given day, 200,000 U.S. Air Force airmen are directly supporting military commands worldwide.
The Marines are refocusing on amphibious operations and trying to do more with fewer ships, a smaller overall force and less money. As part of a more “forward deployed” change, they rebranded their capstone concept, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, with the creation of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force for Crisis Response in 2013. The so-called MAGTF was designed to respond to events demanding immediate responses.
The first MAGTF was deployed to a base in Moron, Spain. Though planned long before the attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, Marine officials have said the task force could be an effective first responder in a similar future attack.
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