WASHINGTON – Newly installed U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says he is happy with the two-year budget deal’s recommendation for the Pentagon, despite it being $12 billion less than what the White House requested for fiscal 2020.
Speaking to press just hours after taking office, Esper also said he is focused on filling empty spots at the Pentagon as quickly as possible to “make sure we have that civilian control of the military” firmly in place.
The Trump administration’s request for defense in FY20 was $750 billion, a number Democrats in Congress tried to reduce to $733 billion.
The nearly $1.4 trillion spending plan announced Monday — which would prevent a government shutdown this fall and do away with the final two years of budget caps known as sequestration — includes about $738 billion in military funding for FY20. That’s a 3 percent increase from current-year levels, which seems fine with the man now running America’s military.
“$738 [billion] is a good number. We also have two years. We expect to see two years’ worth of numbers. To the degree we have predictability, to the degree we can avoid [continuing resolutions], those things allow us to plan and make more efficient use of our dollars,” Esper said. “So I’m good with those dollars. No complaints.”
Esper is the first confirmed defense secretary since Jim Mattis resigned at the end of last year. But a number of spots — including 14 of 59 political spots, and four of the top six roles in the department — are still filled by acting individuals, something Esper highlighted as an issue he’s hoping to quickly address.
“My perspective was from a service secretary and I think it’s always challenging — people in acting jobs, when you don’t feel the full confidence in the role, sometimes folks tend to maybe not behave as confidently because you’re unsure and you also don’t want to bind the person-who-may-actually-be-confirmed’s hands,” he said, adding he does not think the open spots impacted operations.
“We need to get staffed up quickly,” he said. “We have to get stable leadership.”
One of those empty spots is Army secretary, now vacant with Esper’s promotion. Ryan McCarthy, the service undersecretary, has been nominated to fill the full role. Asked about advice for his successor, Esper joked that he hopes McCarthy won’t “break anything,” before saying he expects McCarthy’s nomination to arrive at the Senate in a “matter of days.”
“His paperwork is at the White House, and everybody we put forth needs to be thoroughly vetted. So I think he should soon be coming out of the process,” Esper said. “The question is if it will be soon enough for the Senate Armed Services Committee to do its due diligence in a timely matter.”
The secretary has also asked for new guidance to be issued to the field to inform service members on the “very important role of media and press” in society.
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.