Photo/IllutrationU.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech in May. (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, generally followed the same script when he testified in recent congressional budget hearings: U.S. engagement in multiple military operations in the Middle East has allowed Russia and China to modernize their militaries and close the gap with the United States.

His explanation has been used as justification to pump more money into the services.

But this comes at a time when the Department of Defense (DOD) has clear strategies but unclear follow-through.

Many uniformed officials have cited the DOD’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) as their reasoning for big budget acquisitions. However, the NDS’s prioritization of great power competition with China and Russia appears stillborn when viewed alongside the reprogramming of funds for the support mission on the southern border, ongoing operations in the Middle East, and administration officials, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, pressing for more aggressive action against Venezuela and Iran.

Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, has said the Navy has “more mission than we have forces to do the mission,” with only a “50 percent batting average in terms of meeting combatant commander demands.”

But he attempts to explain this away by saying that it is part of the “dynamic force employment” concept, in which fleets will be rotated to different combatant commands as needed.

As a sterling example of the concept, Richardson heralded the hastened deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Strike Group from EUCOM to CENTCOM weeks ahead of schedule in response to what was characterized as “identified credible threats” from Iran.

But not having assets already in-theater would have posed a risk had there been a large-scale attack and not a threat. The situation could be worsened by engaging in large-scale operations across multiple combatant commands, something that could indeed happen in the current dynamic security environment.

The underlying problem is insufficient shipyard capability and capacity to produce ships as well as degraded sealift capabilities.

This creates a perfect storm of ship construction and repairs running behind schedule and degraded logistics.

This lack of ships and shipbuilding poses a threat not only to the previously espoused 355-ship navy that the administration has been keen on but also the Navy’s modernization efforts.

While the USS Truman had initially been slated to not be refueled, in essence retiring the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the administration reversed the recommendation after many members of Congress voiced disapproval.

This change maintains a carrier in the force that can contribute to power projection, but it takes away funds that the Navy had planned to use to procure modern systems, such as autonomous vehicles.

The Navy has also been struggling to adequately train crews, which became evident in the separate collisions involving the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald.

Both cases had evidence of lengthy watch duty hours and inadequate training due to lack of time and funds, as well as high operational tempos and poor maintenance.

All of these issues were found to have played a role in both collisions.

The Navy isn’t the only service in rough shape; there is a laundry list of cross-service problems. All services are suffering air asset readiness issues and taxing operational tempos.

Climate change is putting bases at risk, with Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina requiring $3.6 billion (390 billion yen) in repairs after Hurricane Florence.

The Air Force has suffered severe damage to two bases this year. Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida was battered by Hurricane Michael, and nearly one-third of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of STRATCOM, was underwater due to flooding.

The Air Force needs $4.9 billion in new funding over the next three years to repair both bases.

While NDS and DOD officials both say that “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea are of concern, great power competition with China and Russia is more important, putting both North Korea and Iran in a “Tier 2” of threats. Although Venezuela could also be considered a “rogue state,” it hasn’t held much prominence as a threat until quite recently and, while in the Western Hemisphere, poses even less of a threat to the United States than Iran and North Korea.

Given the shift in focus to Iran, it’s unsurprising that U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are nervous, as they’re within striking distance of North Korea.

The U.S. threat calculus is simple: While North Korea serves as a looming threat, the last time Pyongyang actually carried out an attack was in 2010, with the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea hasn’t carried out any attacks on South Korea or the United States. Even the U.S. Forces Korea commander, Gen. Robert Abrams, has said tensions on the Korean Peninsula are decreasing, shown by recent demining activities and the removal of guard towers along the DMZ.

In the same speech, Abrams also declared support for the State Department-led diplomatic efforts. He had said that support for these efforts was one of the reasons behind the reduced size of military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, which had been used as a deterrence through a show of force.

Contrast this with worsening U.S.-Iran relations since the U.S. pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, the ongoing attacks by Iranian proxies on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, and continued Iranian support for Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah. Unlike a North Korean ICBM strike on the United States, however, the Iran threat isn’t one of an existential nature. While present and persistent, the lesser magnitude of threat posed by Iran calls into question the necessity of sending more troops to CENTCOM.

Military leadership is right that the U.S. military advantage is degrading. But solving this problem is more a matter of management and prioritization than it is about funding.

This situation, however, would be made much worse by engaging in even more operations, such as with Venezuela or Iran, before winding down involvement in ongoing operations.

There’s no question that the U.S. military would prevail in an armed conflict with Iran or Venezuela. Of greater concern is what happens afterward. Not only would military engagement in either country cause them political instability, but the casualties and loss of equipment would degrade U.S. military readiness even further during a period of great power competition.

Although military officials cannot disobey orders, they can still voice their concerns or resign. So, too, can the defense chief, as shown by the resignation of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis when President Donald Trump announced a premature withdrawal from Syria.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Gen. Dunford, and Dunford’s successor Gen. Mark Milley, should all keep this in mind should the administration decide to undertake questionable military actions that redirect funds and attention away from both critical readiness and the core focuses for the armed forces laid out in the NDS.

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Eric Rowe was previously a defense staff reporter at The Asahi Shimbun’s American General Bureau in Washington. He holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from The George Washington University and BAs in Political Science and Asian Studies from Purdue University.