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How Many Crises Can DoD Handle?

American forces -- seven warships -- are on their way to offer help to the Japanese to help them cope with the devastating earthquake. [The photo is of the Navy's response to the last great tsunami in 2004.] American forces are considered to set up a no-fly zone over Libya and. maybe, to help the opposition in its struggle against Gadaffi. American forces are fighting in Afghanistan. American forces are operating in Iraq. American forces operate from Djibouti, watching Yemen and Somalia. American forces operate in the Philippines.

But American forces face a Congress that so far has failed to commit to paying its bills for 2011. And American forces face a public concerned about the deficit, concerned about its military and just how much it can do. So we asked the analysts at the Heritage Foundation to consider just how much the rubber band be stretched before it breaks.

James Jay Carafano offers his view, titled "Stretching the Rubber Band:"

Everybody, it seems, wants to throw the military at something, be it Libya’s air force or tsunami relief. It brings to mind Madeline Albright’s famous question: “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can't use it?”

Among people who take the use of military power seriously, glib calls for action set the teeth grinding.  Such talk blithely glosses over all that is required to maintain trained and ready forces and the costs—in treasure and lives—when we put our service personnel in harm’s way.

Don’t get me wrong. I would be happy to dispatch military assistance to our friends and allies suffering from catastrophes like the earthquake that just savaged Japan. And, of course, our military should be ready to jump when needed to help out here at home.

But let’s not forget that these missions are never a free lunch.

A Congressional Research Service study pegged the cost of responding to the 2004 Asian tsunami at about $300 million. Military assets detailed to relieve that disaster included the Abraham Lincoln battle group and the Expeditionary Strike Group centered on the helicopter carrier Bonhomme Richard.

In addition to marshalling military assets from all over, the U.S. Pacific Command served as the backbone of the whole of government response. Other federal agencies could not have accomplished their missions without PACOM support. And, even then, UN officials criticized the U.S. response as inadequate.

That was then.  One wonders if PACOM could pull that mission off today with the dwindling resources available.

Meanwhile, many pundits and politicians are clamoring for a U.S. -imposed no-fly zone over Libya.  Typically, these calls are unaccompanied by any clarity about the utility of the mission.

A no-fly zone is no easy button. It won’t knock the regime out of power. It won’t stop the killing of innocents. It won’t keep the regime from attacking rebels or shelling cities and oil facilities. On the other hand, it would put U.S. forces in harm’s way and, according to estimates offered by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, might cost up to almost $9 billion.

I am all for helping liberate Libya from the thugs.  But let’s make sure we are doing something sensible and constructive.

While all this is going on, Congress is playing politics with the Pentagon’s annual budget.  The next defense appropriations bill could leave the military $20-25 billion short of the budget requested by President Obama—and that request shortchanged the military to begin with.

It’s an odd and disturbing phenomenon.  Folks are insisting that we dedicate the military to huge new undertakings, sending personnel and other assets most everywhere except where they most need to be—in Iraq and Afghanistan, finishing the jobs there.  Moreover, many of the people calling for a no-fly zone are the same people calling for cuts in aircraft carriers, amphibious capability, and stealth aircraft—exactly the kind of stuff needed to impose a no-fly zone.  And, oh yeah, many of the maritime and aviation assets they want on the chopping block are what we’d need for disaster response in the Pacific.  It’s as though their military budget and their military missions exist in parallel universes.

What about responding to catastrophes on our own soil?  That takes ground forces.  And, the Pentagon is already so strapped for manpower that the Quadrennial Defense Review cut the number of troops for protecting the homeland.

As Katrina taught us, there is no easy button for dealing with disasters on the home front.  A recent Congressional Commission report, “Before Disaster Strikes: Imperatives for Enhancing Defense Support of Civil Authorities" reached some sobering conclusions. For example, despite nine years of post-9/11 ramping up, "there is currently no comprehensive national integrated planning system to respond to either natural or man-made disasters."  Federal, state, and local agencies are not even sharing what they are doing now. They are not, the report admonished, "making a sustained and comprehensive effort to share all-hazards response plans."

The report argued that catastrophic disasters are in a league of their own. If the military is not trained, resourced, equipped, and practiced at working with other federal, state, and local assets, Americans will be at grave risk. Yet, given this damning assessment of unpreparedness, what do the Pentagon and Congress do?  Talk about cutting more capacity from the military.  Unbelievable!

There is a lesson to be learned here. It is all very well to say  “we don’t have to worry about this or that” or “we can assume risk” or “use soft power” until something happens. Then everybody wants to throw the Pentagon at the problem.

To keep such impulses from leading to disastrous decision-making, you need two things: 1) a trained and ready military and 2) leadership that understands the risks and utility of military force. One wonders if Washington contains many people who understand either imperative.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

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