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Strategy, Threats, Resources Must Balance, Winnefeld Says

By Jim Garamone

The tough fiscal environment means the Air Force must make investment choices that protect America and its interests today, but also in the future, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at the Air Force Association’s annual Air and Space Conference today.

Navy Adm. James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr. said that with less money, it is even more important to make the correct operational and investment decisions.

The threats are out there, the admiral said. In the past, he added, there was enough money to fund responses to those threats to the nation and its interests and allies. But with fewer dollars, he said, it is imperative to prioritize the competing claims on a shrinking defense budget.

Threats run the gamut, “beginning with major nation-states, who have watched the U.S. military’s impressive capability -- with some anxiety -- and who are working hard to catch up,” Winnefeld said. These states cannot challenge American military superiority head to head, he added, but they will try to do so asymmetrically.

The threats include highly insecure authoritarian states such as Iran, North Korea and Syria. Such nations, the vice chairman explained, conclude that obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons is the best insurance policy for their regimes.

“This also has huge implications, ranging from the importance of limited missile defense to how we might handle a conflict on the Korean Peninsula,” Winnefeld said.

And the threat from violent extremists hasn’t disappeared, the admiral said. These terrorists have “morphed from a centrally controlled apparatus within a supportive host nation, to a group of highly diversified, feisty and independent yet weakened franchises living mostly in poorly governed or ungoverned spaces,” he told the audience.

These groups are learning and have become “operationally wiser” over time, and they still threaten American citizens and interests across the globe, he said.

“There are other threats, including transnational criminal organizations and cyber-empowered individuals,” Winnefeld said. “Even the threat of disasters is changing along with the Earth’s climate.”

The Pentagon’s strategy prioritizes these threats, the vice chairman said. But Congress, he added, must provide the Defense Department with the flexibility to manage whatever funds it gets to meet those missions.

Congress should give the department “as much freedom to maneuver as possible within our budgets, and by removing restrictions on our ability to become more efficient,” Winnefeld added. Congress needs to remove limitations on the “downsizing glideslopes,” the vice chairman said, “where we need to get our old stuff out of the system so we can buy and sustain new stuff.”

Congress also needs to authorize a new round of base closures and realignments so the Defense Department can get rid of the 20 percent excess infrastructure it is carrying, Winnefeld said, adding that Congress and DOD officials need to look at personnel accounts as well.

“While everyone here would agree that our magnificent men and women in uniform deserve more than the average bear, we simply cannot sustain our recent growth trajectory in pay and benefits and expect to preserve a properly sized, trained and equipped force,” he said.

“Some will fight some of these needed changes, but I would ask you to stand up and understand that the most important benefit we can provide for our people is to train and equip them to fly, fight and win and come home safely to their families,” Winnefeld said.