WASHINGTON ― A day before details of President Joe Biden’s first defense budget will be released, top Pentagon officials asked Congress to let them use the budget to shed unneeded weapons in order to invest in forward-looking technologies now ― but it was not an easy conversation.
In an appearance before House appropriators Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the forthcoming budget will spend more on advanced technologies like hypersonics and artificial intelligence, and divest from “older ships, aircraft, and [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] platforms that demand more maintenance, upkeep and risk than we can afford.”
“By making sure we are focused on acquiring the right kinds of capabilities that we need to be relevant in the future fight, I think this puts us in a good place,” Austin said. “That requires us to take a hard look with the services with capabilities that will not be relevant in a future fight and really begin to no longer invest in them.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, said when he became the Army chief of staff six years ago, military budgets were “mortgaging our future to pay for our present.” With an eye on China, the forthcoming budget “is biasing the future over the present, slightly.”
“We are trying right now to put down payments on investments that are going to pay huge dividends, five, 10, 15 years from now, for a future force that will be able to compete successfully with any adversary out there, to include China,” Milley said.
The testimony came amid friction with Capitol Hill over emerging plans from the Navy to decommission two littoral combat ships and buy only eight vessels, and from the Air Force’s plans to curtail procurement of the C-130 airframe and the MQ-9 Reaper drone. It’s a sign of the difficult politics surrounding divestitures from weapons platforms that carry weight for national security as well the communities where they are made, based and maintained.
“I have serious concerns regarding these plans to divest or decommission platforms that are in high demand, or have much service life left in them,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel. “Almost every combatant command has told the subcommittee they need more, not less MQ-9 access.”
Calvert also opposed the Navy’s move to decommission a third and fourth LCS, which have “significant service life left until there’s a viable replacement.” Lawmakers want the ships transferred to U.S. Southern Command and for the Department of Defense to communicate better with Congress, he said.
“Congress reviewed the [Navy’s] request and has been very clear that we oppose the decommissioning of the LCS 3 and 4, and they should be used in the SOUTHCOM [area of responsibility],” Calvert said. “It’s my understanding that the Navy is ignoring congressional intent and will again propose to decommission these very same ships in the FY22 budget.”
“In my opinion this is a little more than a budget gimmick to allow the Navy to spend more money elsewhere,” he added. “I agree there are some systems that must be retired to make way for newer, more effective systems. However, DoD cannot make these decisions in a vacuum.”
The $715 billion defense budget proposal for fiscal 2022 would be an $11 billion increase, and it just trails the rate of inflation. However, Calvert and other Republican lawmakers back an increase 3-5 percent over inflation, and he said he is “greatly concerned” Biden’s request will be insufficient to counter China’s growing military might.
Reiterating that China is the DoD’s pacing challenge, Austin defended the department’s investments as vital to maintaining America’s advantage, aiding faster analysis and action.
“Numbers are important, but we will never seek to match our adversaries one for one,” Austin said. “We will always seek to develop a much greater capability, and that’s our approach. I think we’re on a path to achieving it.”
But Calvert said that after he measured the capabilities of the U.S. and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region against China’s, he remains worried about Chinese aggression against Taiwan and elsewhere.
“I still think numbers matter,” he said.
Responding to fears from Texas Republican Rep. John Carter that the Army would become the bill payer for increased Navy and Air Force procurement, Milley offered reassurances the Army’s six-pronged modernization efforts will be “well funded in this budget.”
“The Army is not going to get shortchanged,” Milley said. “I’ve looked at this budget very closely. ... I think it’s very balanced amongst all the services and develops [the Army’s] future capabilities.”
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, it should “create opportunities” for the Army to reshuffle spending, Austin said. However, he noted, all the services must take hard looks at what they’ll really need for a future fight.
“Let me assure you that from my perspective our effort is not to make the Army be the bill payer for the Air Force and the Navy,” he said.
Republicans were not the only ones with concerns. The Defense Subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. said while the DoD indicated it will divest from “legacy” capabilities, the services have no common definition of “legacy,” and neither does Congress.
Austin and Milley conceded that the DoD hadn’t produced a common definition, and Milley said he will work on it at a meeting Friday of the Joint Chiefs, to render advice to Austin.
“I will address this quietly in a closed room with my fellow chiefs,” Milley said. “I think it’s really important that we do have a common definition. And I do think it hinges not so much on the word ‘legacy’ but on the word ‘relevance.’ Is it relevant to some future operating environment that we envision against our No. 1 ‘pacing threat,’ as the secretary calls it — China.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.