Dempsey: US Military Will Survive Sequestration

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday that he hopes the plan to cut Pentagon spending by $46 billion over the next six months is “one budget deal away” from being all but forgotten.

In a March 18 speech about the U.S. military’s future in the Arabian Gulf, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey shifted his tone from ominous to cautiously upbeat about the effects of sequestration on the Defense Department.

Prior to the March 1 enactment of sequestration, senior military leaders, including Dempsey, have warned that the mandatory spending cuts will slash training budgets, delay modernization and severely hamper the U.S. military’s ability to project forces around the globe.

Dempsey didn’t back away from the bleak financial outlook, but attempted to reassure America’s allies in the Middle East that the Pentagon has no plans to abandon the region.

“I promise you we will figure all this out,” Dempsey told an audience at that Center of Strategic Analysis and International Studies. “We are one budget deal away from forgetting about all these issues, and I am counting on our elected officials to deliver that deal.”

As American involvement in Afghanistan winds down, the Pentagon is shifting its primary focus to the Pacific as part of defense strategy designed to address both unconventional threats as well as traditional military forces such as North Korea and China.

Often referred to as the “pivot” to the Pacific, Dempsey said the strategy is less about preparing for major battles than it is about “maintaining freedom of movement” in the region. If anything, Dempsey sees a permanent presence in the Pacific as a way of avoiding misunderstandings that can trigger conflicts.

However, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is no longer sure how much of the new defense strategy the military will be able to execute because of the forthcoming budget cuts. When the Pentagon has a better idea of what level of funding the services will receive, Dempsey said the military, White House, and Congress will need to re-evaluate the strategy and figure out what missions they want the military to fulfill.

“As I stand here today, I don’t yet know whether or if or how much our defense strategy will change, but I predict it will. We’ll need to relook at our assumptions, and we’ll need to adjust our ambitions to match our abilities. And that means doing less, but not doing less well,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey’s remarks came on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The chairman didn’t offer a lot of specifics, but said that the Pentagon’s commitment to the Middle East will not be measured in boots on the ground and ships offshore. Instead, American military forces will rely on joint training exercises to maintain the relationships it has developed over the past two decades with allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

It will be interesting to see if the Pentagon will afford such exercises, since senior leaders from all services have said that training will be cut drastically under sequestration.

This is the reality that Pentagon leaders still avoid facing. Dempsey called sequestration “the most irresponsible way possible” to manage the nation’s defense.

“Our nation is going through a historic fiscal correction; we are working to restore that economic foundation of our power, and we need to do this,” Dempsey said. “Deficit reduction is in fact a national security priority, but we need to be a lot smarter about how we go about it.”

Despite the uncertainty, Dempsey said he is confident the U.S. military will survive this drawdown as it has past reductions.

“We will lead our way through this,” he said. “If you are listening, if you are a partner from the region who is going to go back home and report on what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said, you can take it to the bank that we will remain the partners that you have enjoyed … for the last 20 years, and I can only see a future where we become stronger together.”

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