Sailors and their families have grown accustomed to Washington, D.C., showdowns. But this latest one may be the gravest, as the shuttered American government lurches closer to a possible default on its national debt – now about 12 hours away.
A default imperils the government’s ability to pay its bills, including military pay and veterans’ benefits. Economists believe it will throw the world economy into a crisis, as the U.S. is the world’s largest economy and holds the largest debt. And long term it would likely diminish the military’s size and power, as the nation would no longer be able to borrow as much to maintain its armed forces.
Three weeks ago, before the latest showdown, Navy Times spoke to multiple military experts about perceptions that the U.S. Navy may lose its superiority over other fleets in coming years and decades. Our cover story (free for subscribers and Prime members) reported that most analysts dismissed those concerns based on the size and technological advantages that U.S. forces had over all other potential adversaries.
So, what did worry them when it came to America maintaining military superiority?
This, from retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, former head of U.S. Central Command who oversaw two wars and the world’s most unsettled reason:
“Two things: One, the need for an adapted strategy recognizing our reduced means. And the other is America’s ability to govern itself and to put itself back on a fiscally sustainable footing. We’re on a fiscally unsustainable path right now. The economy’s always been the engine for our national security. There’s no way that that our military power will not erode if a robust American economic revival is not part of the cards. And the dysfunction in Washington right now shows a country unable to govern itself — and that is worth more than 10 battleships to us.”
Mattis, now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said the above in a Sept. 26 interview — days before the shutdown.
“The example that America knows how to govern itself is one of the compelling aspects of our national security,” Mattis continued, “And right now, we are not demonstrating that.”
Another symptom of Washington’s dysfunction are the massive “sequestration” cuts, observers say, indiscriminately reducing Pentagon spending by nearly half a trillion dollars over a decade. One former Navy fleet commander said the scale of these cuts was manageable, but that the across-the-board nature of these cuts robs the Navy’s leadership of the ability to set priorities.
From retired Adm. John Harvey, former head of Fleet Forces Command:
“The method we’re going to, the sequestration and the [continuing resolution], ties their hands as to where you go and make your choices. You don’t get to make choices, and that’s the danger. It’s not that we have tough circumstances. It’s that we don’t get to make the choices necessary to deal with those circumstances.”
Harvey said the Navy is accustomed to evolution as priorities and technology and funding fluctuate. But this setup is something altogether different — and possibly dangerous. He continued:
“Ten years from now the Navy’s going to look pretty different. But that’s happened every 10 years. We go through these cycles and our Navy knows how to deal with these cycles and they’re painful sometimes and there’s winners and there’s losers. Ships evolve, planes evolve. But we come out of these things with a Navy that is global, deployable, powerful, sustainable. Because we’ve been able to make choices and to muster the political will to make those choices and make them stick.”
But now, Harvey said, “we’ve defaulted out of choices into mindless cutting. And that leads you to potentially very bad outcomes at the wrong time.”