National defense has yet to become a major campaign issue in 2012 despite the fact that the next president will face a perfect storm of scandal, budgetary crisis and strategic dilemmas that America has not seen in military affairs since the end of the Vietnam War. Despite a major speech on defense issues given at the Citadel in 2011, Governor Romney's strengths as a candidate are not associated with national security, while President Obama's staff prefer to emphasize to the administration's many successes in counterterrorism operations instead of the accumulation of serious issues faced by the Department of Defense, the armed services and America's returning veterans.
This lack of debate is problematic because the next president will require a mandate for his solutions to the Pentagon's laundry list of problems if they are to have a hope of passing the Congress in tight budgetary times. Some of the national defense problems are structural while others constitute a legacy of ten years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and in remote lawless regions, but the political capital needed to fix them will be substantial:
- Never has the Pentagon's system for acquiring weapons and supplies been so dysfunctional or so ruinously expensive. Most of the major weapons systems of the past decade have been cancelled or halted in scandal at a cost of billions, including the Future Combat System, the F-22 Raptor , the next generation Destroyer, the Crusader, the Comanche helicopter, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Littoral Combat Ship. The desk-bound military bureaucracy bitterly fought against the deployment of the life-saving MRAP while outfitting troops in uniforms that made it easier for the enemy to shoot them.
- The Obama administration is attempting a "strategic pivot" toward Asia by focusing shrinking military resources in the Pacific, but the United States Navy will be extremely hard-pressed to carry out offshore balancing of a rising China with a reduced fleet of only 285 aging ships, the lowest number in a century. Nor do we have any regional allies with operational aircraft carriers - Japan has only a helicopter carrier, Britain is losing it's last carrier in 2014, Australia and South Korea have no carriers and New Zealand barely has enough ships to constitute a functioning navy. Naval expansion would require a significant investment and several decades to complete.
- Despite a withdrawal date set for 2014 and a pact continued American aid until 2024, the war in Afghanistan against the Pakistani-backed Taliban remains a stalemate without a strategy for either a military victory or a comprehensive regional peace agreement. The erratic government of President Hamid Karzai remains hopelessly corrupt with an enormous army and police apparatus that Afghanistan cannot afford that is unable to provide security. Possible military intervention in civil-war wracked Syria or a conflict with Iran over it's nuclear program in addition to Afghanistan would create a severe strain on the Pentagon's resources and manpower.
- A decade of war with high tempo repeated deployments have left the US Army and Marines grappling with significant personnel problems as a minority of military personnel have shouldered a disproportionate combat burden. The Army in particular faces a moral crisis of widespread "toxic leadership", "failures in generalship" and lack of accountability for senior officers who fail at command or break the law. Suicide rates for military personnel have skyrocketed, a sexual assault epidemic in the ranks has required the intervention of Secretary of Defense Panetta and the most talented junior and field grade officers - the future four stars, NATO commanders and Chiefs of Staff - have been exiting the military at unprecedented rates for years.
- The response of the Veteran's Administration to the urgent needs of our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have returned home from war broken in body or wounded in mind is more than a scandal - it constitutes a national disgrace.
- Looming in the background, hovering over all these problems are massive, across the board cuts that would devastate the defense budget if sequestration were triggered under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Not only would sequestration cuts to defense - which both President Obama and Governor Romney oppose - make it impossible to resolve any of the aforementioned problems, but the United States would have extreme difficulty carrying out any of its' core security responsibilities overseas. Or even just maintaining intact the post-Cold War defense structure that was in place before September 11, 2001 or making good on promises to veterans for their health care and military pensions.
Whomever is sworn into office as President of the United States in January of 2013 will face tough decisions about our military, our veterans and our national security of a magnitude that have only been surpassed by President Truman in the demobilization after WWII and equaled by President Ford after the debacle of Vietnam and the transition from the draft to a professional, all-volunteer (AVF) military in the 1970's. Such a situation requires a national debate in the frankest of terms by both candidates who must level with voters about what choices we face as a country and where they intend to lead us.