Esper eyes phased reopen, more coronavirus stimulus funds

Mark Esper gives a press conference on the results of the Nato Foreign ministers meeting at NATO headquarters June 27, 2019. (Alexandros Michailidis/

The Pentagon is eyeing a phased reopen and possibly more coronavirus stimulus funds to help offset costs to restock medical supplies and equipment used to fight the pandemic, the defense secretary said.

"We anticipate the likelihood for additional monies coming out if there's a fourth supplemental because we see a greater demand with regard to medical supplies," Esper said at a Brookings Institution event May 4.

"We also know that we need to restock our shelves, our inventory when it comes to medical supplies and equipment, but we also want to continue priming the defense industrial base."

The Defense Department received approximately $11 billion in the coronavirus economic bill called the CARES Act, and it has issued more than a dozen acquisition memos with guidance for contracting officers, the latest of which notes that DOD will set up a system for contractors to get CARES Act reimbursements for paid leave during the pandemic.

Esper said DOD will continue to leverage those funds, and any future monies, but he was concerned about how the sudden increase in government spending and national debt would affect future defense budgets.

Esper said DOD needs at least a 3% increase on its topline budgets year over year, a line congressional Republicans touted last year as defense committees wrestled over the fiscal 2021 topline budget. But that might be unattainable due to coronavirus spending.

"The massive infusion of dollars into the economy by the Congress and executive branch -- nearly $3 trillion -- will throw us off that course," he said.

House Armed Services Committee chair, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) recently said topline spending would continue to be debated, adding that "there are clear needs in this country that are greater than the need to expand spending at DOD."

Smith also opposed giving DOD any additional pandemic funds because the organization "has a lot of money and they ought to spend that money to meet those needs."

Esper said, in the event of tighter defense budgets, he wanted to keep doing defensewide reviews to find money that can be redirected to priority efforts in the National Defense Strategy, such as artificial intelligence. For the 2021 budget proposal, DOD said it found nearly $6 billion in its zero-budget review process and redirected the money to 5G and AI initiatives.

"We do need that sustained top line growth. If we don't [get it], we're just going to have to accelerate the shedding of the legacy force and turning those dollars back into building the force we need in the future," Esper said.

"There may be things we need to stop doing in order to free up dollars, but at the same time there are policy things, adjustments we can make in our training, relying more on our allies and partners to make sure we can get to that future end state."

In the meantime, Esper said DOD's chief management office is mapping out a phased reopening of the Pentagon and other facilities to coincide with the White House's plan released April 16.

"We want people at work. We want our base at work," Esper said. "We want to continue with payments. We want to help with cash flow."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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