With Russian troops in Ukraine and China announcing a huge increase in its military budget, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, reminded congress that the MacDill Air Force Base-headquartered command still oversees the vast majority of threats facing the U.S. And that defense budget cuts cause him “great concern.”
“We own about 90 percent of the problems facing the country in terms of issues arising,” Austin said in answer to a question from Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
McKeon (R-CA) asked Austin and commanders from U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Africa Command, about how reductions in troop strength affect their ability to meet their missions. President Barack Obama on Tuesday introduced a $496 billion defense spending plan.
“My concern, with a shrinking budget, is whether or not the services have what they need to provide trained and ready forces in a timely fashion,” replied Austin, who delivered his first “posture statement” about the future of Centcom since assuming command almost a year ago. “I am further concerned about the ability to refurbish critical equipment used extensively over the past 13 years or so while engaged in combat.”
Austin also said cuts in money for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms as well as troops that have provided support create additional worries.
“We have less ability to provide those critical enablers,” said Austin. “They were game changers in our fights with al-Qaida. Overall, Mr. Chairman, the ability of the services to provide trained and ready forces and critical enablers cause me great concern.”
Centcom has responsibility for a 20-nation swath of the globe stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan.
The No. 1 mission in a complex region is Afghanistan, said Austin. A mission made even more challenging by the refusal of Afghan president Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain there past December. That’s lead to President Barack Obama threatening the so-called “zero option” of no more U.S. military personnel to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces.
“The zero option would be very problematic, for the country of Afghanistan,” said Austin. “The military would fracture because of a lack of support both fiscally and our inability to provide advice and counsel to the Afghan security force.”
That option would also be bad for the region, said Austin and “lead to great instability for some time to come.”
With its presence in Syria and support for the Lebanese Hizballah, Iran remains a major global problem, said Austin. However, successful negotiations over its nuclear ambitions could reduce tensions, he said.
If those six-nation negotiations, called the “P5+1” succeed, “it would make a significant difference in the region,” said Austin. “Certainly a nuclear Iran is something no one wants to see.”
But nuclear weapons aren’t the only threat posed by Iran, said Austin.
“Iran presents a number of other threats to the region,” he said. “They could mine the Straight [of Hormuz]. They have the ability to conduct cyber attacks, ballistic missile capability and of course...the Qods Force (the special forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) and efforts to spread malign activity not just around the region, but across the globe.”
Asked about Centcom’s role in bringing home Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was taken captive by the Taliban in 2009, Austin said his “entire command is committed to getting Sgt. Bergdahl back. I just met with his parents in December. They came down and spent two days in my headquarters. We walked through all the things to get Bowe back. That remains at the top of the list to get things done.”
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How important is the Centcom region?
The area “holds as much as 60 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and plentiful natural gas reserves,” Austin wrote in his “posture statement,” presented to congress to show his vision for the future and justification for budget requests. “The past has clearly shown that when the region experiences any degree of strife or instability, every country there and around the globe — to include the U.S. — feel the effects.”
Centcom received $508 million for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, according to spokesman Max Blumenfeld. That money included $153 million for the Tampa headquarters and $355 million in war funding. The command lost $11 million in headquarters funding in the current fiscal as a result of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, Blumenfeld said.
The command is seeking $164 million — the same it originally received last fiscal year — in the new budget, said Blumenfeld. Because of the uncertainty in Afghanistan, there is no projection for war funding, called “overseas contingency operations” funding by the Pentagon, he said. Because of the uncertainty, the Pentagon has held out a pool of $79 billion for all military war funding.
Currently, there are about 94,000 U.S. troops in the region, according to the statement, including about 33,600 in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
The region has seen “a significant increase in ethno-sectarian violence” which is driving much of the instability, said Austin, especially the Sunni-Shia divide. But tensions between Arabs and Kurds, “which has worsened in Iraq,” as well as Arabs and Israelis, Pashtun and other groups in Afghanistan and Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan “are emotionally charged and will prove difficult to resolve.”
Austin’s 45-page posture statement lists his top 10 priorities, which include Afghanistan, preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering “malign Iranian influence,” managing and containing “the potential consequences of the Syrian civil war and other ‘fault-line’ confrontations,” and defeating al-Qaida.