Defense Secretary: If We Don’t Remove Defense Cap, We’re Questioning America’s Survival

Speaking at the annual Air Force Association conference on September 20, Defense Secretary James Mattis engaged in the time-honored tradition of complaining about the defense budget. While many would say that with defense making up the largest expenditure in the federal budget there couldn’t possibly be a problem, Mattis may actually have been correct in his comments, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“If we don’t get budgetary predictability, if we don’t remove the defense caps, then we’re questioning whether or not America has the ability to survive,” Mattis said at the conference. “It’s that simple.”

Congress has agreed to a continuing resolution that funds the government through December 10. This limits spending to the levels of fiscal year 2016 while also preventing the Pentagon from launching any new programs. This is the 30th continuing resolution enacted over the last decade.

“We have got to move with the Congress, and the congressional leaders are calling for this, toward passing the president’s budget towards lifting, removing the defense caps … so that we maintain our competitive edge. Otherwise it will erode,” Mattis added.

If we don’t get budgetary predictability, if we don’t remove the defense caps, then we’re questioning whether or not America has the ability to survive.
Defense Secretary James Mattis

In his speech, Secretary Mattis highlighted some of the areas that needed attention.

Speaking about space and cyberspace, Mattis said “we need new starts in order to take advantage of what our industry can deliver if we’re willing to invest there.”

Mattis also said that the military needs to move beyond technology and be able to develop their own strategies, instead of relying on vulnerable command and control systems, because of the possibility of being cut off by the enemy.

“In cyber space there are more and more, I would call it ‘attack capability,’ in the hands of enemies to take down our command and control systems than we have seen in past times,” Mattis said.

Many would say that Mattis is over reacting about the nation’s budgetary woes, but data from the Congressional Budget Office may support where he’s coming from.

According to a recent report, while the budget has steadily increased, though not as much as the defense department would like, most of that increase spending was seen in areas that are not operationally related.

Data from the CBO shows that in the post 9/11 era, and particularly since 2008, the largest increase in defense spending has been seen in medical programs, instead of departmental management, where combatant activities are funded.

In cyber space there are more and more, I would call it ‘attack capability,’ in the hands of enemies to take down our command and control systems than we have seen in past times.
Defense Secretary James Mattis

According to the CBO data, between 2001 and 2016 spending for central medical programs increased by 84 percent, nearly twice as much as spending for departmental management, which increased by 45 percent in the same time period. This can be attributed to a number of factors, but it all adds up to concerns about the country being able to meet emerging threats.

“Some factors suggest that DOD may face difficulties in achieving efficiency in spending. Because DOD lacks market-based incentives such as prices and profit, the Office of Management and Budget and the Congress have often resorted to using control measures, such as targets for reductions in headquarters staff, to guide the department toward efficiency. That several of those measures have been implemented over time indicates that some of them were not perceived to be successful,” the report says.

“In addition, DOD and its components perform diffuse tasks, from combat to the management of supply chains; the size of the department and the divergent outputs of those tasks make it difficult to measure and improve their efficiency,” the CBO report adds. “Taken together, those factors suggest that spending on certain support functions, such as management, may not have improved efficiency as much as spending on other activities.”

At the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting and exposition earlier this month, Mattis said in the keynote address, “The international situation is the most complex and demanding that I have seen in all my years of service — and that’s over four decades.”

He went on to add that recent actions by North Korea are “threatening regional and even global peace despite universal condemnation by the United Nations.”

“This is the reality that faces our Department of Defense and our like-minded allies,” Mattis said. “We must have militaries fit for their purpose, fit for their time in these days of emerging challenges.”

At this event, Mattis went on to outline several efforts being undertaken by the DOD to adapt to these threats, despite budgetary concerns, including increased lethality, strengthening alliances with allies, and reforming their business practices.

So were Mattis’ comments simply talking points delivered to a receptive audience or were they based on real concerns? The truth is probably a bit of both. There has been a great deal of concern over the last few years about a hollow defense force in the face of an increasingly hostile world.

While the defense budget has increased at a fairly steady rate over the last 15 years, the question that only time will answer is, “Will it be enough when we need it most?”

Photo Credit: Jim Mattis / Flickr