Sequestration probably wouldn’t prevent a U.S. military intervention in Syria, but it could increase the delays, difficulty and costs involved, defense experts said Friday. The White House has pledged to step up its support for the Syrian rebels, but with the Pentagon’s across-the-board restrictions already consuming readiness, a new major operation might amount to burning the candle at both ends. Sequestration already means the Air Force can deploy fewer aircraft and the Navy can deploy fewer ships so fewer units across the board are available for tasking beyond their existing assignments.
The Pentagon can bring idle units back up to top levels of readiness, but commanders warn that would take time and money. In fact, it might be that stepped-up aid isn’t just the White House’s best political option — enabling President Barack Obama to get more involved in Syria without deep entanglements in the messy civil war — it might have also been the only option that didn’t require billions more dollars from Congress. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was warning lawmakers as far back as April that committing military forces to Syria might further stretch the Pentagon’s budget. “I think it is pretty clear that a supplemental would be required,” he said at the time. Any military intervention in Syria would be among the first new tests of a post-sequester Pentagon.
Even one option that boosters have called a compromise — a no-fly zone — could prove difficult for a military bogged down by sequestration, the logistical challenges of withdrawing from Afghanistan and its own determination to shift its focus away from the Middle East and toward the Pacific. The Air Force, for example, has grounded 11 active-duty combat squadrons as a result of the across-the-board cuts and is keeping others in states of “tiered readiness.”
“It can take up to six months to get a unit that has stopped flying in a combat-ready status,” said Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick, who said he could answer general questions but made clear he couldn’t talk about Syria. The Pentagon referred Syria questions to the White House.White House officials treaded carefully when discussing possible post-red line military options on Friday, and of late they’ve downplayed the likelihood of a no-fly zone. “People need to understand that a no-fly zone is not some type of silver bullet,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters at a briefing.
Creating and maintaining a no-fly zone in Syria would require an “intense engagement” that would not serve U.S. interests in the long term, Rhodes said, adding that the Syrian regime has air-defense resources that would make a no-fly zone there more “difficult and dangerous and costly” than in Libya. A Syria intervention is exactly the sort of situation that sequestration opponents have been warning about: an unexpected crisis for which a “hollow” military might find itself unready. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon took that line when he seized on the White House announcement as another opportunity to blast sequestration.
“Red lines are meaningless unless they are backed by action,” McKeon said. “To my friends who think there is no risk to ever deeper cuts, I ask you to tell that to the airman and the sailor who may well face down Syrian missiles in the coming weeks.” The California congressman pointed to two examples: the grounded combat squadrons and the Pentagon’s decision earlier this year to cancel a carrier group’s deployment to the Middle East. “We only have one aircraft carrier in the region,” said McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin. “If the president wanted to have an operation like a no-fly zone, our capability to do that is certainly diminished.” The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, in April urged caution when considering military options in Syria.
“As we consider options to respond to this atrocity, I am not convinced that military action is appropriate at this time,” he said. “There is no evidence that U.S. military action will achieve anything except cost American lives and treasure.”Statements by the Pentagon’s senior leaders tell a similar story. “Continued cuts on the scale and the timeline of sequestration will require significant reductions in military capabilities and the scope of our activities around the world,” Hagel told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday. And Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said setting up a no-fly zone in Syria would cost more than setting one up in Libya in 2011 because of Syria’s more advanced air defense systems.
“I’m not saying we couldn’t beat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require greater resources,” Dempsey said in April. Still, even though there’s no question that sequestration has resulted in a net loss to readiness, researcher Jacob Stokes, of the Center for a New American Security, said that won’t change the U.S.’s basic military options there.“The U.S. military remains overwhelmingly the most powerful and capable military force on the planet,” Stokes said. “In other words, if we need to intervene in Syria, we certainly have that capability, even under sequestration.” And especially given the fact that U.S. intervention will most likely be small-scale, sequester could amount to a minor factor, he added.
“Although it appears the president has now decided we are getting more involved, the likelihood of another boots-on-the ground intervention in Syria is very low,” Stokes said. “Doing another large scale [counterinsurgency] operation would have been tough on the force regardless of whether sequestration occurred.” Some of sequestration’s longtime critics agreed and kept up their drumbeat on Friday. James Jay Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation said McKeon was not overstating the effect of sequester on readiness if there were a need for military intervention in Syria. “People think that DoD is this massive organization with almost unlimited resources,” he said. “What people don’t realize is, it is a bigger infrastructure than anything else, but when it actually comes to the pointy end of the spear, it’s not a bottomless well.”
Cutting back on defense spending also caused problems when the U.S. was deciding on a strategy in Bosnia and Kosovo during the Clinton era, he added. “I can remember very senior generals coming in saying, ‘I think Kosovo’s going to break the back of the Army,’ and that was like a 17,000-man deployment,” Carafano said.
Carafano added that while he doesn’t support intervention in Syria, he believes lawmakers who say sequestration will have an impact on readiness to execute whatever military strategy the White House decides on. “But the notion that sitting there saying, ‘If we had to do an intervention, we’d be kind of scrambling, and we would be robbing Peter to pay Paul,’ that doesn’t surprise me to hear people say that,” he said. Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute added that all branches of the military would need to scramble in case of a no-fly zone in Syria. “I would never sort of imply that a no-fly zone is only an Air Force job because presumably, there’d be Navy fighter and Marine Corps help as well, and possibly logistics from the Army,” she said. But the Air Force especially could have a hard time producing the force necessary to institute a no-fly zone, or at least one at full strength, she added.
“There is a legitimate problem. There’s a couple of things happening in the Air Force right now as a result of sequestration today, not sequestration in 2014. The Air Force has a quarter to a third of all of its combat aircraft and pilots grounded. It does not mean the Air Force can’t execute a no-fly zone. It does mean, however, that it takes longer to get ready, success might be achieved at a slower rate, and there’s a likelihood for greater risk of casualties.”