WASHINGTON — A recently released report from a congressionally mandated commission is emerging as a tool for defense hawks who hope to increase military budgets in the coming years.
The report, put out by the National Defense Strategy Commission on Nov. 14, warned that a “crisis of national security” looms for America, thanks to growing threats from countries like Russia and China and aging American assets.
The commission identified a number of issues that have created this situation for America’s military, including the need to modernize certain capabilities, tensions between the military and civilian sides of the Pentagon, and a decaying industrial base.
But during a Tuesday hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, senators latched onto one clear message from the report: the need for increased funding.
SASC chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., opened up his comments by noting that fiscally “we got ourselves into this mess and we’ve got to get ourselves out of this mess,” while reiterating his belief that the Pentagon needs to be funded at around the $733 billion budget that had been expected until just a few weeks ago when the White House cut it down to $700 billion.
In response, Gary Roughead, a retired admiral who was the 29th chief of naval operations from 2007-2011 and who served as co-chair for the commission, said the authors of the report are “very mindful that it will take money" to accomplish the National Defense Strategy, and called $733 billion an ideal "floor” for the Defense Department.
Other senators were quick to jump on that point, with several offering that removing the threat of sequestration would help provide fiscal certainty for the department as it looks to invest, a statement not denied by Roughead or Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador and undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005-2009.
Even before the committee hearing, pro-defense lawmakers were starting to use the report and its dire conclusions to argue for a budget boost in negotiations over the Pentagon’s nascent 2020 budget. And it could prove useful as hawks prepare for what may be an uphill battle, with Democrats who favor domestic spending taking the House in January.
In an interview earlier this month, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a member of the commission before being tapped to replace the late Sen. John McCain, called it “a valuable messaging document” for the budget fights to come.
“With Democrats taking the House, there’s an additional challenge,” Kyl said. “My hope is that the bipartisan nature of this commission will enable Democrats who are in doubt to come to the right conclusions, and that the intelligent Democratic members of the commission can perhaps persuade members who don’t have the facts on the need to do this.”
The Defense Department’s two-year budget boost may have left President Donald Trump with the mistaken impression it was enough to rebuild the military, Kyl said.
“Of course, it’s not. It’s just the beginning of a long process,” Kyl said. “It would be helpful if he could make that point.”
If the president does request less than $733 billion, Kyl added, pro-defense lawmakers will have a tough time arguing for more.
“It would provide the Democrats with an easy political argument: ‘Well even the president doesn’t want to spend what the commission recommended,' ” Kyl said. “And that would be unfortunate if that occurred.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.