Obama's military budget mistake

The Week

The U.S.S. George Washington, one of the Navy's 11 aircraft carriers, needs money for fuel. A gas card won't do. It takes several years to refuel an aircraft carrier, at a cost of more than $1 billion.

At a time when NATO, the Pentagon is shrinking its budget, part of President Obama's .

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But the squeeze has real world consequences. Congress insists that the Navy keep 11 carriers afloat. Right now, budget forces are conspiring to kill at least one. And since the George Washington is supposed to begin its refueling cycle in 2016, the refueling costs are highly vulnerable to the budget cleaver.

The more the Navy delays the decision, the more expensive the refueling process becomes. (It takes more than a year to prepare for it. And this is the second time is as many years that a carrier has faced potential refueling delays, which quickly cascade.)

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The Obama administration understands that credible deterrence requires a military that can respond to threats. On the simplest level, this means that the military's current assets must be ready to deploy when ordered. As of now, according to the admittedly self-interested commanders in chiefs of the armed forces, readiness -- our ability to fight wars now -- and modernization -- our ability to fight wars in the future -- are in direct competition. This is what they told Congress today.

Solving the readiness problems won't cost a fortune. It does not depart from the President's desire to cut the military budget over the long term. And the White House seems to realize this.

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Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget, unveiled as Russia was invading the Crimean peninsula, includes an extra $28 billion earmarked for priorities like readiness -- and keeping the carrier fleet afloat certainly qualities. But the budget process, as a series of scary e-mails I've gotten tonight from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee remind me, is destined to produce a deadlock. It does not allow for immediate spending boosts to fix problems.

So here's the situation: Obama, many Democrats, and most Republicans, including virtually everyone who sits on the Armed Services committees, believes that a $28 billion boost to defense spending now is the right thing to do. But all agree that it stands so little chance of happening.

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This error is on Obama and his senior staff. The easiest thing to do, in this instance, would have been to ask Congress to pass a separate bill that contained the money. Natural political adversaries, like Rep. Buck McKeon (R), the outgoing chair of the Armed Services Committee in the House, would have been willing to fight for a clean bill, so that his colleagues didn't try to attach poison pills related to Obamacare or Iraq. Heck, McKeon might have even been willing to fight for a small tax increase to offset it. Yes, really.

But Obama did not reach out. Instead, the administration buried the money in its broader budget request, therefore subjecting it to the extreme pressures of the mandatory sequester caps imposed by the budget control acts and to the political locks associated with the Democratic and Republican parties.

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He can still change his mind. And if Russia continues to be military aggressive, a one-time boost to U.S. military readiness would not be a bad message to send, and certainly would give Obama another tool to try and avoid actual conflict.

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