MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, BEAUFORT, S.C. – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave Marines and their families the long view of defense budgets during a town-hall meeting here yesterday.
Throughout history, the military is either growing or shrinking, but it doesn't remain static, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said.
"I actually think it's one of the things that makes us more versatile and adaptable," he added. "We get these swings of resources, and we deal with it."
After a decade of growth, the budget is shrinking, and there is a reason for this, the chairman said, noting that service members are not walled off from America. They are in touch with their fellow Americans, he said, and know that many are out of work, many have lost homes, and many are underemployed. "There really is an economic crisis in America," Dempsey said. "We really do have challenges."
At the same time, the military – those who wear the uniform and the families who support them – has earned the esteem of the American people. Dempsey cited recent surveys that show almost 80 percent of Americans approve of their military. "That's incredible," he said. "You can't get 80 percent of the people in this country to agree about anything."
The approval rating is so high because Americans trust their service members, the chairman said. "The country believes we don't act in our own self-interest, we act in the country's interest," he added.
If the military tries to ignore the economic problems, Dempsey told the Marines and their families, "I guarantee you we would lose that stature, that esteem, that trust, of the American people."
The military has to find ways to do what needs to be done at less cost, the chairman said. "And we will," he added. "It'll be uncertain for a period of time, but we will lead our way through this. We're not going to act like victims, and [we will] do the best we can for the country, while articulating the risk."
And there is risk, Dempsey said. A school of thought based at Harvard posits that the level of violence in the world is at an evolutionary low, he noted, because no big wars have killed millions since the middle of the 20th century.
But that does not mean the risk is gone, the general said. The ability of nonstate actors and "middling powers" such as North Korea to inflict harm has increased, he added.
"In my view, the world is actually more dangerous, not less dangerous," Dempsey said. "Maybe violence is at an evolutionary low, but the world is more dangerous, because more people can do us harm."
Cutting the military now has different dangers compared to drawdowns in the past, he said, because it's occurring in an era of instability and uncertainty.
But an existential threat to the country doesn't exist right now, Dempsey said. "A terrorist attack? Yes, and at some point, a ballistic missile," he added. "But [we're] not there yet."
This is a transitional period where Americans feel safer, the chairman said, and so the military must adapt itself and "find the sweet spot in the budget that will allow us enough capability and capacity, ... and then make sure we build into the force the ability to expand when we get it wrong."