Senators drill down on 2018 defense spending

Just a month after the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act became law, the Senate Armed Services Committee is starting the process of formulating the 2018 defense budget.

McCain at Heritage today.
 

SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants $54 billion in new defense spending for fiscal year 2018.

With the ink newly dry on the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress is starting the process of formulating the 2018 defense budget.

Coming on the heels of a white paper produced by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) that proposed $430 billion in additional defense spending over the next five years, the Senate Armed Services Committee held its first hearing Jan. 24 on priorities for FY 2018 defense spending.

"President Trump is now commander-in-chief of a military that is underfunded, undersized, and unready to meet the diverse and complex array of threats confronting our nation," McCain said in his opening remarks.

"We have to invest in the modern capabilities necessary for the new realities of deterring conflict," he continued. "Our adversaries have gone to school on the American way of war, and they are investing heavily in advanced capabilities to counter it. After years of taking our military advantage for granted, we are now at serious risk of losing it."

McCain is proposing a baseline budget of $640 billion in 2018, $54 billion above current plans.

The senator from Arizona doubled down on this sentiment at a Jan. 24 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. McCain took Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), President Trump's nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, to task over votes to cut military spending and troops.

"You've spent your entire congressional career pitting the debt against the military, and each time, at least for you, our military was less important," McCain told Mulvaney.

In a Jan. 25 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," McCain said he was "leaning against" voting for Mulvaney's confirmation.

At the Armed Services hearing, panelists all agreed that America's national security depends on its fiscal health, which will dictate the country's ability to invest in military readiness, rebuilding and developing new capabilities.

Much of the hearing focused on ending sequestration and confronting conventional threats such as Russia and China, but panelist Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for defense at the Heritage Foundation, said U.S. military strategy and funding needs to be "additive."

"I think that as we move forward, the military has to retain conventional capabilities while also improving its ability in cyber, hyper-velocity munitions, directed energy types of systems" and even developing better social media and information operations capabilities, he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised the question whether the U.S. is making proper investments in cybersecurity.

"Can these modern threats and challenges be fully addressed by large spending increases on traditional military investments like troop levels, ships, planes and nuclear weapons?" Warren asked panelist Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

"You don't want to deal with threats from a bygone era," he replied.

Korb said in his opening remarks that the U.S. needs to better define its national defense strategy in the face of current threats before it simply hands more money to DOD.

"Increased funding that is not connected to a sound defense strategy for the demands we face today will be non-strategic, wasteful and do more harm than good," he said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-N.Y.) asked the panel how the U.S. can best prioritize funding for cyber capabilities and recruiting and retaining cyber warriors.

"Trying to bring in cyber expertise through the reserve component is part of it," responded Thomas Mahnken, a former DOD official and current president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "I think more broadly, military...tends to accord rank with seniority with pay, and in the cyber world, certainly in the private industry, those things don't always align."

Mahnken said that Congress must think about granting more authorities to the services that would increase the flexibility to attract talented people from the private sector.

Korb said that Congress and the DOD need to concentrate more on the "Third Offset" strategy developed by the previous Pentagon regime that focuses on developing and maintaining America's technological edge on the battlefield.

"I would give that a priority," he said, adding that "cyber is something where you have to invest more in; it's not as expensive as some of the more traditional areas."

McCain emphasized that point in the section of his white paper calling for greater investment in cyber tools and offensive and defensive capabilities.

"Many of these investments will not be extremely expensive," he wrote. "But if we fail to invest sufficiently in cyber capabilities, we run the risk of creating a hollow cyber force."

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