House Speaker Paul Ryan fears that budget cuts coupled with increased national security threats have “pushed our military past the breaking point,” creating systemic readiness problems that are costing troops lives.
“Instead of upgrading our hardware, we have let our equipment age,” he said in a defense policy speech at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event Thursday morning. “Instead of equipping our troops for tomorrow’s fight, we have let them become woefully underequipped.”
“In exchange for (troops’) service, we make them a sacred promise. We promise that we will give them the tools they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. And today, quite frankly, we are letting them down. We are breaking that promise. That is shameful.”
The comments from the House’s top Republican come just one day before a potential government shutdown as his party and congressional Democrats continue to fight over how to fund a host of federal programs for the remainder of fiscal 2018. Republicans want a substantial increase in military spending, while Democrats have said they’ll only agree to that if other nondefense priorities are also boosted.
In his speech, Ryan repeated his accusation that the rival party’s leaders are “playing politics” with military lives by tying a budget deal to issues like domestic spending and immigration issues.
But the speech also went further than simply a short-term plea for a legislative fix. CSIS officials said it was the first time in recent memory the top House official spoke in detail about military readiness and priorities.
Ryan laid out a broader argument on military funding often left to his top defense hawks, calling for more focus from all lawmakers and the American public on the importance of adequate resources and funding for the armed forces.
“Our adversaries recognize our supremacy in the traditional domains of warfare and are, therefore, trying to develop capabilities that put our most vital interests at risk, while avoiding our traditional strengths,” he said, listing threats posed by North Korea, Russia, Iran and Islamic State group fighters.
“This is not some problem we are projected to face years down the road. It is happening right now. … We know the greatest antidote to that uncertainty is the ability to depend on our Armed Forces to keep the peace.”
He noted that 80 troops were killed in training accidents in 2017, which is almost four times as many killed in combat. “And the worst part is that these deaths may have been preventable.”
The solution, he argued, is “an adequate budget agreement [that] fully funds our troops” and an end to the practice of using short-term budget extensions to keep government operations open. Pentagon officials have often lamented both of those issues, saying they need more money and more reliable budget schedules for long-term planning.
“We cannot shy away from the threats we face. We must confront them,” he said. “We cannot shun our alliances. We must strengthen them.”
“And we cannot leave our troops unprepared on the battlefield. We must equip them.”
The themes of the speech generally mirror President Donald Trump’s promises to “rebuild the military” and the general outline of his caucus’ “A Better Way” policy agenda released two years ago.
But this speech comes amid growing concern among defense hawks in Congress that fiscal conservatives’ focus on cutting federal spending has overlooked the importance of national defense funds.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and other members of that panel in recent weeks have publicly objected to plans for simple budget extensions in lieu of complex defense funding hikes, arguing the moves severely damage Pentagon planning.
The House will vote Thursday afternoon on another short-term budget extension in an attempt to avoid a government shutdown on Friday.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.