WASHINGTON — The US defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman warned lawmakers that scrapping the two-year budget deal would be catastrophic for US national security interests.
The congressional testimony Thursday came as fiscal conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, citing the nation’s rising deficit, are pressing to abandon the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 and go back to the $1.04 trillion level under automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, set in 2011. (This would cut President Obama's request by $30 billion.)
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, in an exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said a return to sequestration would require a rewrite of the US national defense strategy and expose the nation to “significant risk,” from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and violent extremism, Dunford said.
“My immediate response, senator, is we would have to revise the defense strategy, if we go back to sequestration; We would not be able to do what we do right now,” Dunford said. “We would not be able to protect our nation’s interests as articulated by the national security strategy and our defense strategy.”
The president's fiscal 2017 defense budget request includes roughly $583 billion in discretionary spending, $523.9 billion is the base budget and $58.8 billion is in overseas contingency operations account.
Dunford and Defense Secretary argued in favor protecting the defense top-line while some Republican senators made arguments for raising it. Lawmakers from both parties took aim at sequestration.
“The unfunded requirements of the military services now total nearly $18 billion,” said SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. “That represents the additional ships, airplanes, helicopters, fighting vehicles, training and other programs that our military leaders say they need simply to carry out our increasingly antiquated defense strategy at an acceptable level of risk.”
As a result, DoD cut 24 Army UH-60 Black Hawks five Air Force, F-35As, five Navy Ticonderoga cruisers, 77 Marine Corps joint light tactical vehicles and $1.3 billion in military construction, and certain critical nuclear modernization efforts.
According to Carter, $11 billion was the actual gap between what the Pentagon needed and what it got through the Bipartisan Budget Act. To manage that, DoD protected readiness accounts and cut modernization for aircraft and shipbuilding, but did not terminate major programs or multi-year contracts.
Carter argued that if the Bipartisan Budget Agreement were to fall apart, it could lead to a $100 billion budget cut through sequestration, which Carter called, “the greatest strategic risk to the Department of Defense.”
"The budget deal was a good deal," Carter said. "It gave us stability. We're grateful for that. DoD's greatest risk is losing that stability this year, and having uncertainty and sequester return in future years."
"That's why going forward, the biggest budget priority for us strategically, is Congress averting the return of sequestration to prevent $100 billion in automatic cuts, that are looming."
There was more grim news. Even if DoD averts sequestration, Dunford said, it still faces a budget bow wave in the early 2020s, when nuclear and conventional systems will be in need of upgrades — the result of years of deferred maintenance.
“The more out of balance we have become in the last few years, the more difficult it will be to achieve balance in the out-years,” Dunford said.
In an exchange with Dunford, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., lamented how sequestration endures, though it was passed in 2011, before the rise of the Islamic State, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ebola and Zika.
“We don’t have to live by that form of reality in 2016,” Kaine said.