New HASC Chairman Pledges a Defense Budget that’s “Good Enough”

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2018 was a good year for the Department of Defense. For the first time in two decades, Congress delivered both the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Defense Appropriations Act before the beginning of the new fiscal year. Congress also lifted the Budget Control Act limits for the last two years, meaning the Pentagon was freed from the worries that a portion its budget would be automatically sequestered.

In November, voters handed control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats, while Republicans increased their majority in the Senate. This is the second time we’ve seen a divided Congress since the beginning of the current conflict. On May 24, 2001, Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of  Vermont switched his party to Independent and caucused with the Democrats, leaving Congress split until Republicans retook the Senate in the 2002 midterm elections. Again in the 2013-2014 sessions, Democrats held the Senate while Republicans held the House.

While this is clearly bad news for the president’s overall agenda, it is especially bad news for the DoD, which is now dealing with a new round of budget uncertainty this split is bringing.

Differences on Budget numbers

The defense budgets for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 were happy times for the armed forces, with ample money to repair equipment, buy new equipment, and rebuild eroded readiness. But the presumptive next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Washington Democrat Rep. Adam Smith, has promised to cut defense spending in next year’s NDAA.

He signaled his intentions back in April, when he told Secretary of Defense James Mattis, “I hope you are also planning for a lean future, because we are looking at a trillion-dollar deficit this year.” He was more specific in September. In an appearance at the second annual Defense New Conference, he was asked about his views on the DoD’s $716 billion funding level in FY 2019.

“I think the number’s too high, and it’s certainly not going to be there in the future,” Smith responded.

On the other side of Capitol Hill sits Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who took over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee after the death of Sen, John McCain. Inhofe has made clear, repeatedly, that his view of the 2020 defense budget is that $733 billion “should be seen as a floor, not a ceiling.”

The Pentagon is trying its best to deal with uncertainty. The Office of Management and Budget has told the financial planners to develop a defense budget of $700 billion, rather than the $733 billion that was originally planned. While the number-crunchers are complying, word is that they are also continuing to build the larger option in case the Senate asks how the brass would spend the extra money.

Differences on Nuclear Modernization

Furthermore, Inhofe taken some direct shots at Smith, particularly the congressman’s views on the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The most recent Nuclear Posture Review emphasized the need to modernize our nuclear forces.

While Russia initially followed America’s lead and made similarly sharp reductions in its strategic nuclear forces, it retained large numbers of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Today, Russia is modernizing these weapons as well as its other strategic systems. Even more troubling has been Russia’s adoption of military strategies and capabilities that rely on nuclear escalation for their success. These developments, coupled with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and nuclear threats against our allies, mark Moscow’s decided return to Great Power competition.

But Smith believes in maintaining a nuclear arsenal only large enough to deter an attack, not defeat a determined enemy. He told a meeting of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear weapons organization, “The rationale for the triad I don’t think exists anymore. The rationale for the numbers of nuclear weapons doesn’t exist anymore.”

Inhofe was characteristically blunt when discussing Smith’s views on nuclear modernization. “What he’s doing,” Inhofe said, referring to Smith, “is taking the thing that’s singularly the biggest threat to us and saying: ‘We want to make America more vulnerable.'”

Smith bristled at Inhofe’s comments, telling Politico on Thursday, “The problem is the way that Sen. Inhofe seems to want to approach this, which is basically to publicly question my intelligence and publicly question my ability to adequately lead the committee.” He later said he’s sure that he and Inhofe can work together despite the obvious animosity that exists.

More fundamental problems

But to me, other things Smith has said recently are far more troubling. The age-old motto of the Pentagon’s weapons-buyers is “we never want to send our soldiers into a fair fight.” The U.S. way of war is to maintain dominance. We don’t have that right now, because of the toll the last 17 years of war have taken. But we’re working towards it.

The Army’s new strategic plan is to rebuild readiness by 2024, at which point it would begin fielding the next generation of weapons systems that it is developing now. From 2028 on, the aim is to achieve and maintain “multi-domain dominance.” Smith sees things differently.

At the Defense News Conference, Smith showed his hand. “We are going to be a major, major player, probably the major player, on the global stage,” he said. “But we are not going to be utterly and completely dominant.”

I cannot recall a HASC chairman who has ever advocated building a military that is merely “good enough,” which is how I take Smith’s remarks. It is one thing to advocate building a dominant military in the smartest way possible. Spending smartly is good policy. Building a military that is anything short of “utterly and completely dominant” is irresponsible, especially coming from the man who will be running the committee responsible for directing how the DoD spends the money it gets.

Until the 2012 redistricting, Smith’s district included Joint Base Lewis-McChord, home of approximately 40,000 soldiers and airmen of the the Army’s I Corps headquarters, the 7th Infantry Division Headquarters, 1st Special Forces Group, a Ranger battalion, and two Airlift Wings, the 64th and 446th. It is a major power projection platform, and Smith ought to be intimately familiar with what goes on there.

How he can look down the road to JBLM and think that those service members don’t deserve every advantage, that they ought not be the “utterly and completely dominant” military force on the planet is simply mind-boggling.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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