I have vivid memories of September 11, 2001. I had been living in the Washington, D.C. area for a few years previously but had moved back to Idaho Falls in 1999.
That morning I was at the Idaho Falls YMCA on the treadmill watching a morning news program when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I remember the initial news reports and was watching when the second plane plowed into the South Tower.
That somber day brought into sharp focus the critical necessity of constant vigilance to protect our country. What are the current presidential candidates offering to protect our national security?
Clinton’s website proposes sticking with our allies, using more diplomacy and standing up to Russia and China. She has a plan to fight ISIS but offers little with respect to enhancing U.S. defense capabilities. Her recent statement that she would not deploy U.S. ground troops against ISIS was, in my opinion, irresponsible.
Trump says he would boost military spending, focusing on the number of aircraft and ships in the U.S. arsenal. It is hard to give any weight to his “secret plan” to defeat ISIS. More puzzling (and troubling) is his continuing love fest with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s manipulative and dangerous anti-America strongman.
Here are some of the challenges that I believe deserve focus, regardless of the occupant of the Oval Office and over and above the absolutely necessary fight against terrorism.
First, we must upgrade our declining military readiness, ie. the ability to actually deploy our forces and fight conflicts. Last year, the then-Secretary of the Army testified that Army readiness was on “the ragged edge”. The Air Force currently lacks the manpower to perform its missions and an inordinate number of aircraft are not in flyable condition at any one time. The Navy struggles to maintain its ship deployments. We need to have enough qualified members of the armed forces, provide them the tools necessary for effective training, maintain the equipment we have, and ensure sufficient ammunition, supplies, etc. in the event of conflicts. None of this is as exciting as flashy new defense systems but it is vitally important.
Second, we need to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and protect ourselves against those who have them. Both North Korea and Iran must be watched continuously and carefully. But we should also boost our ability to protect against a missile (or missiles) lobbed from either (or others). The U.S. is deploying a system of ground-based (Alaska, California, Romania and elsewhere) and ship-based anti-ballistic missile systems. This should be a higher priority.
Third, a host of incredibly expensive new defense systems are coming down the pike, including the Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier, the F-35 fighter (Hill Air Force Base in Northern Utah is playing a key role in the deployment), the Long Range Strike Bomber and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. These are terribly expensive but potentially effective weapons. Can we afford to do all of them, or do we need to pare back some or even eliminate some systems? Tough, tough decisions.
Fourth, we must have strong capabilities online and above the atmosphere to win in the future. The U.S., Russia and China (and others) have significant cyber capabilities (the U.S. in 2012 took Syria offline and Russia & China both use cadres of hackers). Space is often overlooked. The current Defense Department budget includes $2 billion to protect American satellites. What strategies should we adopt to prevail in these venues?
Idaho is not unaffected by national defense issues and, hopefully, these issues will play a significant role in voters’ choices. Many of our men and women volunteer for the armed forces. Terrorism could threaten Idaho targets. The Idaho National Laboratory does significant work geared towards protecting U.S. infrastructure against cyber attacks. And the future role for Mountain Home Air Force Base and Gowen Field will strongly impact the Idaho economy.