Thank you, Senator Inhofe, for holding this hearing to consider funding levels for the Department of Defense to maintain our nation’s military. I join you in welcoming our distinguished witnesses this morning, and I look forward to their testimony.
Today we consider the Fiscal Year 2019 budget for the Department of Defense, which seeks $617 billion in base funding and $69 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations. Fortunately, we find ourselves in a moment of budget stability, having passed an agreement in February that removed the threat of sequestration for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 and added funding for both defense and non-defense programs. However, additional challenges loom on the horizon, as the caps and sequestration will be back in force for Fiscal Year 2020.
Secretary Mattis, I commend you for the careful thought and hard work that went into the National Defense Strategy, or NDS. It accurately recognizes that the central challenge facing our nation is the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with Russia and China. I am also pleased to see that the President’s budget request reflects the beginnings of investment in some of the technologies we will need for this competition, such as hypersonics and artificial intelligence.
However, the perennial challenge facing any Secretary of Defense is preparing for the future, while reacting to the present. And unfortunately, there are many urgent situations, not delineated in the NDS that will require our attention in the coming weeks and months.
At the present time, the White House is attempting to focus its efforts on negotiating an agreement to denuclearize North Korea. Given where we were a few months ago, when the Administration was threatening limited strikes on North Korea, I am relieved to say we have come a long way, but we still have a long, hard road ahead.
I remain somewhat hopeful that President Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader presents us with an opportunity to craft a comprehensive negotiated settlement. However, we must recognize that the negotiations may fail. If that happens, we could find ourselves in a more challenging position than before the negotiations with a renewal of dangerous rhetoric about war with North Korea, but now more supercharged by those advocating for military action, claiming that diplomacy has failed.
While working through these issues, with a depleted diplomatic corps, the President must also decide by May 12 whether to continue to waive nuclear-related sanctions on Iran as required by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. I support preserving the JCPOA – the United States, and the world, is safer with it. By all accounts, the JCPOA is working as intended and Iran is verifiably meeting its commitments under the deal. If not for this agreement, Iran would likely be a nuclear power today, and irresponsibly withdrawing from it could accelerate Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and make America less safe.
Furthermore, withdrawing from the deal could be a devastating blow to our efforts at diplomacy with North Korea – and, for that matter, any future diplomatic efforts to constrain aggressive or destabilizing behavior by our adversaries. Why would any nation engage with us in serious dialogue to resolve differences if they fear we will later withdraw unilaterally and without cause? Furthermore, abandoning the JCPOA would isolate the United States diplomatically from the international community at the very time we need worldwide cooperation to address the threat posed by North Korea.
Additionally, President Trump’s mixed messages about our military commitment in Syria could accelerate the declared intentions of Israel to conduct more sustained attacks against Iranian forces and proxies in Syria and Lebanon. The level of violence and Iran’s reaction are unlikely to be restricted to Syria and a confrontation including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others in the region is a real risk.
If any one of these situations becomes a crisis, it is going to take all the attention and resources of the Department of Defense. I am interested in hearing more about how you plan to balance the present and the future.
Turning back to the NDS, when we think about great power competition, we tend to think and plan for conventional conflict. But I believe we must take into account that much of the threat already posed by China and Russia is asymmetric.
The growing Russian asymmetric threat below the level of military conflict continues to target the United States, our allies and partners. Russia attacked the heart of our democracy in the 2016 Presidential election through a Kremlin-directed hybrid warfare campaign using all tools of national power. Because we have failed to impose sufficient costs for this assault, not only has Russia not been deterred, it has been emboldened and we are already seeing Russian attempts to interfere with the 2018 mid-term elections. I am interested in hearing what is being done to harden our defenses and develop a whole-of-government approach that utilizes both the military and non-military tools in our arsenal to counter this Russian aggression.
We should also keep in mind that by next spring, the Congress will be debating whether to raise sequestration caps once again. I have learned from my time in Congress that if you show me your budget, I will tell you your strategy. But what will happen to the NDS if we return to the Budget Control Act caps? This debate will be colored by concern about the debt, which was made worse by the $1.5 trillion deficit-financed tax cuts passed last year. In CBO’s recent projection, “debt held by the public rises from 78 percent of GDP (or $16 trillion) at the end of 2018 to 96 percent of GDP (or $29 trillion) by 2028. That percentage would be the largest since 1946 and well more than twice the average over the past five decades.”
The growing deficit and impending sequestration will have severe consequences. They will constitute a major distraction from thoughtful debate and responsible action on issues of national security. They will likely lead to stopgap measures like recurring continuing resolutions that disrupt planning at DOD and every other federal agency, and, ironically add cost and inhibit readiness and modernization. If our nation’s fiscal strategy does not take into consideration the need for revenue, deficit-driven measures like these likely will make it exceedingly difficult to follow through with a long-term strategy with regard to any serious national security or domestic challenges.
Secretary Mattis and General Dunford, you have been consummate professionals and steady hands in a tumultuous time. But we face many difficult decisions ahead, both strategic and budgetary, that demand the kind of leadership and engagement that only a grounded and focused President can provide.
I look forward to working with you, and my colleagues, as we address these important issues. I am proud that this Committee has always worked in a bipartisan fashion during this process, and I look forward to working with all the Committee members to come to a reasonable agreement again this year.
 “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2018 to 2028”, Congressional Budget Office, April 2018, p. 5.