This summer, the nation mourned the 42 service members who died in accidents related to readiness challenges across our military. The deaths of 17 sailors aboard the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald, along with separate accidents claiming the lives of 19 Marines and six soldiers, grabbed the nation’s attention. But words of sorrow do not sufficiently honor their deaths, let alone prevent further incidents. It is essential to reverse the consequences of Washington’s funding paralysis and do what is right by those who raise their hands to serve.
The Constitution places the responsibility on Congress for setting the size of the U.S. military, ensuring sufficient resources are in place to train and equip it, and funding maintenance programs and replacing worn-out equipment. We have a moral responsibility to ensure that our people are fully prepared and fully supported. While I have no doubt that the U.S. military can defeat any adversary, our collective passivity to our worsening readiness challenge means that our enemies’ defeat will cost more lives, time and materiel.
Investigators will determine the causes of this summer’s fatal Naval collisions, but the heartbreaking truth is that we could see them coming. Start with simple math. In the 1980s, the Navy had around 600 ships; today it has 277. Current ships are more capable than before, but the oceans they patrol have not shrunk, their operational demands have not decreased, and would-be competitors’ capabilities are advancing. That means the Navy must keep its sailors and ships at sea longer to meet its mission requirements, which has consequences. In 2015, an independent investigation by the Government Accountability Office determined that the Navy’s mandate to keep ships afloat in the Pacific was shortchanging crew training and degrading the condition of our ships. Its findings mirror what my committee has learned and been warning about for some time. This is a recipe for disaster in some of the most heavily trafficked and dangerous regions of the world.
These kinds of challenges are not limited to the Navy. Marine Corps aircraft are operating well beyond their intended life, and the corps is straining to find spare parts to keep them in the air. Pilots are struggling to get the minimum training hours just to maintain basic proficiency, while worrying that adversaries get more flying time than they do.
The Army is also taxed to its breaking point. We simply have too few soldiers to keep up with the missions they are ordered to undertake. Only five of 58 brigade combat teams are ready to “fight tonight.” The rest are doing the best they can to keep pace with grueling training and deployment schedules.
The Air Force is hobbled by aging aircraft. The average age of its planes is 27 years old, and it is short thousands of mechanics and pilots. The result is that pilots are not flying as much as they used to or as much as they should.
We have too few planes that can fly, too few ships that can sail and too few soldiers who can deploy. A total of 185 service members lost their lives in non-combat accidents over the past three years — more than four times as many as the 44 who were killed in combat. In August, the Navy’s surface fleet and the Marine Corps’s aviation units took the nearly unprecedented step of standing down over safety concerns.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this situation, but it is Congress’s responsibility to provide for the common defense. Regrettably, over the past six years, funding for our military has been held hostage by members of both parties.
We can do better. The president has called for rebuilding the military, and the House has passed legislation that begins to repair the damage. The Defense Authorization Bill passed the House with more bipartisan support than it has received in eight years. But time is running out. Both chambers must act to revise or repeal artificial caps on defense spending or none of this bipartisan work to support the military matters.
Half-measures, such as the one negotiated by the president and Democrats this week, present a stark risk. Continuing to govern from fiscal cliff to fiscal cliff — as we have done for years now — forces the military to limp along on stopgap funding and would shortchange it over $60 billion through fiscal year 2018 compared with the bipartisan House position.
As Congress gets to work, many colleagues and I are unwilling to allow this situation to continue. Although the agenda is crowded, it is hard to remember a time when our military readiness crisis has been on such sharp display. We have a choice to continue to shirk our responsibility, repeating past mistakes and jeopardizing more lives, or to complete our work before the end of the fiscal year this month and provide the military the resources it needs.