House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) laid out a five-point strategy to guide the government in getting national and global security back on track, calling for a whole-of-government and international approach to dealing with threats.
His first point was to speak honestly about the threats this country faces around the world. At best, lawmakers and other government officials have been leery of labeling the U.S. relationship with China an adversarial one, and struggle to talk about a war against radical Islam while making clear they are not going after the religion as a whole. At worst, the world faces effective propaganda from places like Russia, which still vehemently denies sending troops into Ukraine despite evidence to the contrary, and from ISIS, which has swept across the Internet to recruit new fighters.
“The fight for the truth to be heard is especially important in a networked world,” Thornberry said in his Tuesday morning speech at the Atlantic Council.
“Among other benefits, it lets the allies know that they’re not in this by themselves.”
Thornberry said another goal needs to be making the defense acquisition system more agile, to keep up with every-changing threats that often times evolve faster than the military can keep up.
He called for the government to draw on all elements of national power for smarter global engagement, saying “we need the full range of capabilities and the judgment to know which tool to use in what circumstance.” The problem, he said, is that even as defense secretaries continue to advocate more funding for other governmental agencies to help support national security priorities, more and more of the workload is being shifted to the Pentagon due to “antiquated approached, bureaucratic infighting and stove-piped bureaucracies.”
The Pentagon also needs to be able to rely on its international partners and allies, Thornberry said. Allies around the world – in Europe, Asia and the Middle East – need to carry their weight in addressing global threats and participating in multilateral efforts. Only four NATO allies are currently meeting the target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense – and Thornberry said that is not only unfair but is also probably seen by Russia as weakness. He also advocated equipping non-treaty allies like Ukraine to help defend themselves, and he said the Defense Department needs to take a close look at its train and equip programs to see what works and what doesn’t.
But Thornberry spent the most time on a point he deals with every day as HASC chairman: “strengthen defenses.”
“That starts with how much we spend,” he said.
Thornberry lamented that President Barack Obama had threatened to veto the House’s National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2016 not because of the level of defense spending but because of how it is achieved. The House gave the president the same dollar amount he asked for, but rather than work to remove the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps, lawmakers added more money into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to achieve the same total amount of funding.
He said Pentagon officials had described that funding level as the “lower ragged edge of what is needed in order to defend the country. And yet the president has threatened to veto either the authorization or the appropriation bill or both unless he gets more money for domestic programs such as the IRS and the EPA.”
Thornberry admitted that boosting OCO spending was not the ideal way to fund the military but may be the only option until lawmakers on both sides can come together and agree to an alternate to the BCA. Between the spending reductions and inflation, the Pentagon has seen a 21-percent drop in funding over the past four years, and “the world, I hate to tell you, is not 21 percent safer than it was four years ago.”
The chairman said his committee’s bill was not substantially different than the Senate’s version, which recently passed with strong bipartisan support. He said he would work with Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over the next month to create a conference committee bill, get it passed in both chambers and hope the president agrees to sign it.