By: Maj. Gen. Richard Cooke (Ret.)
Fayetteville Observer

Big cuts are coming to the Pentagon, but no one has explained how these cuts will affect our national security or our troops.

One thing is certain: the bulk of these cuts will come from funding for replacing worn-out equipment and modernizing our forces. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already slimmed Pentagon bureaucracy by $200 billion, and current Secretary Leon Panetta can’t cut personnel costs – accounting for 45 percent of the Pentagon base budget – since budget sequestration law allows the president to omit these from cuts, and we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan.

Our battle-tested troops might not be well versed in Washington politics, but they know what they need to get the job done and make it home alive. They know which systems are falling apart today. They know what it takes to find Taliban ambushes, survive roadside bombs and establish security for a local population.

No one knows exactly where the budget ax will fall. But simple math makes clear that if you cut $1 trillion from defense, some capabilities will disappear.

Our troops need improved armored vehicles that can survive roadside bombs and shift quickly from patrol to firefight. The military has scrambled to buy transport vehicles with reinforced v-shaped hulls and heavy armor, but these aren’t as agile as Humvees and lack the combat capabilities of Abrams tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

Frontline commanders rely even more heavily on unmanned aircraft like the drones that helped locate Osama bin Laden and severely damaged al-Qaida in Pakistan. These drones can uncover terrorist teams burying roadside bombs and insurgent hideouts before they ambush troops.

We’ve built thousands of drones, but we’re still short of the number we need. Requests for drones in Libya were denied because they couldn’t be spared from Afghanistan and Iraq. We can expect more shortages if Congress makes deep cuts to defense.

Without close air support, our troops would be exposed to constant harassment from enemy aircraft, small arms fire and artillery anywhere they deploy. Imagine troops being unable to call in an airstrike against an insurgent mortar team in Afghanistan, or U.S. soldiers in Iraq falling under Saddam Hussein’s Russian-made MiG fighters because they didn’t have backup to clear the airspace.

Yet we aren’t replacing our aging fighter jet fleet. We cut the planned buy of F-22s in half and are already considering scaling back the new F-35 fighter program. The most radical plan would retire two Air Force fighter wings and cancel most of the F-35 fighters. The Pentagon will have little alternative if Congress passes its catastrophic defense cuts.

Cutting all these critical capabilities would save less than 14 percent of the trillion dollars Washington wants to cut out of the defense budget. And even at that level, the lost capabilities would put our troops in danger and weaken our national security.

So why is Congress trying to cover half of all proposed spending cuts by raiding a wartime defense budget representing just 16 percent of federal spending? Critics like to exaggerate the size of the defense budget, but no wartime Pentagon has spent such a small share of the federal purse since the 1940s, when entitlements eat up 40 percent of the federal budget, and are growing.

If Congress is going to reach its budget-cutting goals, every federal agency is going to have to accept its share of the fiscal pain. But if Congress thinks cutting $1 trillion from our military won’t have real and deadly consequences, it needs to stop and ask our soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and Coast Guardsmen.