Two to three years ago, the United States Department of Defense had enough military forces on station in, or readily deployable to, the Persian Gulf region (the “CENTCOM AOR” – area of responsibility – or Southwest Asia, as it is called in the military) to execute a limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities without asking Congress for special funding. The military could have performed such an operation “out of hide,” as quickly and seamlessly as the president wanted it to.
Four to five years ago, moreover, the U.S. had the regional political capital to use our bases in the local nations (e.g., Qatar and Bahrain) to launch and direct such a strike campaign.
Both of these conditions have now changed. I wrote about the political shift in December of 2010, after the Persian Gulf nations executed a flurry of bilateral defense agreements with Iran, and Bahrain, in particular, announced that the U.S. would not be able to use Bahraini territory for launching military operations against Iran. Even a subtle shift in these nations’ postures means that the U.S. will have less discretion in what we propose to do against Iran. U.S. military actions that are so limited as to leave Iran able to retaliate against her neighbors may not be acceptable to our hosts.
Mounting a limited strike campaign using only U.S. Navy assets and the Air Force’s global strike bombers (which don’t need the Persian Gulf bases) has remained a fall-back option. But as of 2013, with the funding issues inherent in the long-term budget stand-off, that option can no longer be performed out of hide. The Navy has already had to cancel a carrier strike group deployment that it couldn’t project being able to pay for, and we can no longer assume that the Air Force will have the ready aircraft and aircrew – not to mention the fuel – to perform a bomber campaign against Iran.
The central reason is that the military doesn’t know whether or when it will get more operating funds. There isn’t a federal budget, and the recurring fiscal showdowns between Obama and the House Republicans make all future military funding a big question mark. There is no end-point beyond which the military knows how much money it will have. This isn’t a question of pinching pennies for a while until the money kicks in on a date certain. DOD doesn’t know what its future operating picture will be, beyond the next couple of months.
Worst case is that the sequestration cuts kick in on a month-to-month basis, as the fiscal stand-off between Congress and the president drags on. In early February, in anticipation of having to “operate down” to this worst case, the Navy cancelled the scheduled deployment of the USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) strike group, which was to be the second of two carrier strike groups hitherto maintained on station in the CENTCOM AOR. Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the time that the U.S. would cut its CENTCOM-deployed carrier force to one.
A strike group brings not just the carrier and its air wing but an Aegis cruiser and/or Aegis destroyers, all with Tomahawk missile load-outs. In multiple ways, U.S. combat power has now been cut in half in the CENTCOM AOR due to the long-running fiscal stand-off. The level of carrier presence is insufficient today to execute a limited-strike campaign against Iran while containing the potential backlash.
For completeness, I note that the Truman deployment, even if it had gone on as scheduled, would have left a gap of more than two months in the two-carrier presence in CENTCOM. There has been one carrier strike group in CENTCOM, that of USS John C Stennis (CVN-74), since USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) left the AOR in late November (returning to Norfolk, VA in December). A gap isn’t unprecedented, in the years since the two-carrier presence was factored into carrier scheduling (although gaps are typically much shorter). But now an actual degradation in our force posture has been announced.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is scrambling to scope out the impact of the sequestration cuts on its operations. Big Blue foresees having to cut flying hours for the rest of the year by a third and cancel some scheduled squadron deployments overseas, both of which measures will, within months, affect force posture and readiness in CENTCOM. So will the impending decision to further defer depot-level maintenance on overdue aircraft. Some squadrons in the U.S. would run out of flying-hour funds by mid-May 2013, with no prospect of a new infusion of funds. If additional squadrons were to be forward deployed to CENTCOM for a strike on Iran – and the fuel for such a massive operation set aside – much of the Air Force would have to stop flying altogether until more funds were provided.
The global-airpower bombers – the B-2 and B-52 – would take big hits from the sequestration cuts scheduled for 2013, and that’s bad news for DOD’s readiness to perform a strike campaign against Iran. If the local nations around the Persian Gulf don’t allow U.S. forces to launch from our bases there to conduct such a strike, a conventional strike is impossible without sufficient long-range bombers and Navy carrier air wings. The sequestration cuts, assuming they occur, will eliminate that package of options.
The cuts – and budget uncertainty in general – will also raise the cost of expending resources on a strike against Iran. Replacements for some Tomahawk missiles or Air Force C-ALCM missiles may simply not be manufactured, for example, as procurement orders decline. If USS Harry S Truman has to be rushed to the Persian Gulf for a rapid response – the readiness promise made when her deployment was cancelled – the dent that that will put in her nuclear-reactor life will be an important problem in the future, especially considering that the reactor recoring for her sister ship, USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) has already been delayed indefinitely. Overuse and deferred maintenance cascade into big availability shortfalls down the line, a problem for all the services’ major weapon systems.
We are already having to make decisions that will produce shortfalls in the future. What has been less discussed is the shortfall our decisions today are creating for potential nearer-term requirements. Assuming the sequestration cuts go through, it will not be an “ops normal” action, from the standpoint of force use, to conduct a strike campaign against Iran. Even three years ago, at this time in 2010, it could have been done on that basis. That is no longer the case.
The hands that are tied by this reality are Obama’s as commander-in-chief. He can’t just order the strike. He’ll have to ask Congress for additional funding just to get extra forces to the theater – and that’s before funding the strike itself, which will be very fuel-intensive. He will have to consider, moreover, the force-wide impact of putting the funds into a strike on Iran. What will he have to give up in U.S. force readiness in the Pacific, the theater to which he says we are shifting emphasis? What about defense of the continental United States? – the fighter-interceptors on alert, the ground-based ballistic-missile interceptors in Alaska and California, both of which defense systems the Air Force foresees shortfalls in operating, if the sequester kicks in? What about Afghanistan, where we still have tens of thousands of troops on the ground?
These are the questions raised by a Times of Israel report from today (which, of course, may or may not be valid). Quoting a TV segment from Monday, it says that the Obama administration will tell Israel next month that it is gearing up for a “window of opportunity” to strike Iran in June.
Gearing up with what? The carrier that isn’t deployed? The Air Force aircraft that will run out of flying hours in May?
We don’t have the forces deployed to conduct this strike campaign, nor can they be deployed – assuming the sequester kicks in, and/or that there is no comprehensive continuing resolution agreed to in the next couple of months – without Obama making a big political noise, by running the whole plan through Congress and asking specifically for money to fund it. What are the chances Obama is going to do that?
I’m betting Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t think he will. If the quoted claim really did come from the Obama administration, it is an egregious instance of promising to do something we obviously are making no preparations to do. (I am reminded – painfully – of a press interview Obama did almost exactly a year ago, when he said, on the topic of the Iran nuclear threat: “As president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”)
Even if the claim about the U.S. administration’s intentions in Israel is invalid, the TOI report is as good a pretext as any for making it clear to the American people that our defense situation has already changed. We cannot do today what we could have done three years ago. As long as Obama makes no provision for conducting a crippling strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the threat of doing so carries no weight. That is today’s reality – and it is Obama’s legacy.
I note that the sequester threat is not the only thing at work here. It is, rather, the precipitating factor, at the end of a long period without a federal budget. The uncertainty about defense funding could hardly be more comprehensive at this point.
It was stupid of the Republicans to allow themselves to be set up for the current stand-off, in which they have to trade national-security capabilities – at precisely the wrong moment in history – for the party’s survival as a credible political opponent. The GOP’s credibility must survive this showdown; John Boehner isn’t wrong about that. The Republicans in Congress must be able to stop Obama’s spending plans, or at least slow them down, for the next four years. The “sequester” framework, foreordained when it was cobbled together in November of 2011, means that the Republicans’ hope of doing that now lies in a willingness to let the sequester happen.
But it is unconscionable of Obama to handle the sequestration threat the way he has. The sequester was, we should remember, Obama’s idea. Republicans have offered him flexibility in tailoring the cuts to minimize the worst impacts on defense, and Obama has rejected the proposal. The president also declined in September 2012 to meet the sequestration plan’s deadline for reporting out on how the cuts would be taken in the federal departments. According to official testimony in July 2012, DOD had been given no directive to plan for the cuts imposed by the sequester. This was months after Leon Panetta described the sequestration cuts, in November 2011, as “devastating” to the military – suggesting a minimal competence question, at the very least, regarding the Obama administration.
But even aside from the sequester itself, the military’s readiness is being leached away by continuing-resolution budgeting. Uncertainty serves quite as well as cuts signed off on, to delay or cancel operations and maintenance.
The lack of a budget since fiscal year 2010 means that there has been no ordered, unifying declaration of national strategy or priorities since then. A budget is a political accountability document as much as anything else; the lack of one is a boon to anyone who wants to spend without accountability, and that’s what Obama and his Congresses have been doing. The Obama plan for DOD, in the years since 2009 (when the 2010 budget was passed), might as well have been little Brittany’s Christmas wish list, for all the accountability there is in reconciling it with the continuing resolutions.
Do the funds actually allocated in those years track the defense priorities outlined in the Obama administration’s budget proposals for 2011, 2012, and 2013? There has been no mechanism to guarantee that. It’s not certain that we can tell. What we do know is that an aircraft carrier’s nuclear recore has now been deferred indefinitely, and that our force posture in CENTCOM has now been reduced below the level at which the president can order a strike on Iran without asking for emergency funds from Congress.
The president has had the authority all along to guard the defense capabilities he considers most important, and Congress has offered to bolster – even expand – that authority. If the ability to credibly threaten Iran is not one of those priorities, I don’t know what is. No one wants to attack Iran, but a key component of the strategy to avoid doing it is to ensure that the threat is credible. Today, it’s not. Obama is playing too many games of “chicken” – and he hasn’t been guarding defense capabilities. What that means is that at the moment, vis-à-vis Iran, he’s not carrying a big stick.