Three budget experts told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday future defense budget priorities must be focused on readiness and modernization.
Dakota Wood, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, that in the military budget increases following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 lacked a focus on readiness and sustainment all while the size of the services in the last several years have decreased.
The irony is “our drawdown has occurred when we’re at war,” Thomas Mahnken, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said.
Now, in high-end warfare and in a time of increased great power competition, he added, “We’ve given [Russia and China] a decade and a half to catch up” and “that includes our nuclear deterrent.” At the same time by not investing in the future, there “are few programs ready right now to accept funds.” He specifically mentioned growing the size of the fleet to at least 350 ships as one of those programs that “cannot be accomplished in four or eight years” and will required sustained investment.
Mahnken, in answer to a later question, called for a return to a strategy of being able to fight and win two major regional conflicts at nearly the same time. “We always want to have that margin of security.”
During the campaign, President Donald Trump said expanding the size of the fleet and increasing defense spending were among his top national security priorities.
While both Russia and China are seeking to become regional hegemons, they are pursuing that goal in different ways. Wood said Russia is using a more militaristic approach — backing separatists in Georgia and eastern Ukraine and seizing Crimea.
Beijing’s leaders “see China as a rising power” economically, diplomatically and militarily. China poses “a much greater challenge” than Russia whose economy is hurting, Mahnken added. China’s leaders “believe [disputed territory] already belongs to them” in eastern India, islands near Japan and artificial islands in the South China Sea and Taiwan and believe they can get their way through economic intimidation.
“You can’t buy perfect security,” Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said. With a budget of $620 billion, including overseas contingency funding, the situation in the Pentagon “is not a resource problem” but a “management problem.”
He praised Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) recent white paper on defense spending for addressing the management question. Among the recommendations made by the Arizona Republican were re-examining the value of conventionally-powered aircraft carriers, cutting the F-35 buy and looking at expanding the F/A-18 fleet.
During the hearing, McCain went beyond the white paper and said he and Sen. Jack Reed, (D-R.I.) and ranking member “are seriously considering BRAC [base realignment and closure]” as a way of freeing more money for other defense spending needs. “Frankly, the last commission [in 2005] made some bad decisions,” but the service chiefs and defense officials for years have been calling for a new round of realignments and closures to cover readiness and modernization costs, a position he cited in his comments.
Korb recommended looking at the total spending on national security to include the Pentagon, Homeland Security, State, USAID and intelligence as a way to prioritize spending.
The Budget Control Act” is not the way to run the government,” even while using emergency spending accounts “to get around the caps,” he said. The other experts agreed on the need to overturn the act, as did almost all committee members in their questions.
In the end, Korb asked, “How are you going to pay for” stepped-up defense spending even if the caps of the Budget Control Act are removed without increasing revenue coming into the government. He also mentioned Trump’s campaign pledge to increasing spending on infrastructure and Adm. Mike Mullen’s warning about rising government deficits and debt crippling the economy.
Wood, acknowledging “debt, inflation, economic trend lines have been appreciated by every president” since Eisenhower, said the president and the Congress must determine “what is the priority of the federal government” in spending the money it has.
“We’re currently in a death spiral” in terms of manning, equipping and modernizing the armed forces, Wood said. “We currently have two-thirds if the force we need.”
He added, “Diplomatic and economic initiatives are made stronger by a strong military posture.”