As part of the budget process for the coming fiscal year, the House Armed Services Committee hosted Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Among the many exchanges between the lawmakers and the Pentagon leaders, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., warned Mattis: “While 2018 and 2019 are great, I hope you are also planning for a lean future, because we are looking at a trillion-dollar deficit this year.”
Though his concern with the raising national deficit is welcoming, Smith’s words signal a lack of understanding of the full role of the defense budget. There are three reasons why his statement is problematic.
First, it signals that one of the leading congressional voices on defense issues is unwilling to make the case for a defense budget at the levels necessary to rebuild our military—let alone prioritize the defense budget within the federal budget.
Second, Smith considers the defense budget within a domestic vacuum, where the only relevant consideration is our nation’s deficit. This hardly captures the full reality.
We ask our military to accomplish a wide range of strategic and national security missions, and our defense budget must be adequate to fund those missions. Mattis responded to Smith by making this point and stating, “I’d love to see the budget go down, and the world that we’re looking at out there, I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”
There is a clear line between the mission we give our military and the resources we supply it with, and those two elements must be kept in sync. After all, we fund the military so that it can fulfill the nation’s missions.
Lastly, Smith’s point largely ignores the way that inadequate funding contributes to our military’s current readiness crisis. Smith himself acknowledged that the military is facing a readiness crisis and further agreed that despite improvements in the last two years, there is still much work to be done.
Yet, this work is inherently dependent upon funding levels.
In its 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense found that budget cuts and sequestration “have kept the military services small, aging, and under significant pressure … . Without a real commitment to increases in modernization, capacity, and readiness accounts over the next few years, America’s military branches will continue to be strained to meet the missions they are called upon to fulfill.”
A report by the Military Times published last week also makes that connection. It found that aviation accidents across the military increased by 40 percent between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, leading to 133 deaths. The report states, “The rise is tied, in part, to the massive congressional budget cuts of 2013.”
High operational tempo, loss of thousands of aircraft maintainers, and the drop in flying hours have also fed into the crisis, and in many cases, those problems can be linked to a lack of sufficient resources.
These problems are not limited to military aviation. The Navy’s recent high-profile struggle with ship collisions is another reminder of how diminished resources cause ripple effects.
Firsthand accounts of these problems from those serving in the military should embarrass those responsible for funding our national defense. These accounts highlight our servicemen and women’s ingenuity and will to succeed, but at the end of the day, we can only demand so much from them.
So no, our military should not be forced to prepare for yet more budget cuts and instability.
Many lawmakers pay lip service to the importance of funding the military, but when it comes to making hard fiscal choices, our military ends up being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
Often, Congress would rather take the path of least resistance, choosing to unnecessarily increase domestic spending to accompany any defense increases. This was evidently clear in the recent budget deal approved earlier this spring.
Rather, Congress needs to buckle down and commit to fiscal responsibility while fulfilling its primary function: defending the nation against all enemies.
As Mattis stated multiple times, “America can afford survival.”