WASHINGTON — As lawmakers grilled Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the gap between President Trump's defense buildup promises and his 2018 budget, Mattis reassured them the "real growth" begins in 2019.
Mattis told members of the House Armed Services Committee he did not yet have funding projections for the troops, ships and jets Trump has talked about and offered assurances the budget released in May was the first step towards that goal. The military buildup will happen in 2019 to 2023.
"We didn't get into this situation in one year, and we aren't going to get out of it in one year," Mattis said in response to questions about a 355-ship Navy. "We're going to have to have sustained growth in '19 to '23, and this is where you'll see the biggest growth: Army, Air Force and Navy as we're digging us out of a readiness and maintenance hole."
The outing, with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and DoD Comptroller David Norquist, was the first in a marathon week of congressional testimony on the president's budget released in May. Lawmakers critical of Trump's $603 billion budget proposal as insufficient used the hearing to set up the fight to increase military spending as the House crafts its version of the budget in the coming weeks.
At the hearing, Dunford and Mattis, said that to stay competitive, the military needs 3 percent to 5 percent growth above inflation — a tall order for Congress at roughly $19 billion per year. To achieve the military buildup "is going to take sustained growth over time," Dunford said.
HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chair Mike Turner, R-Ohio, took aim at the Office of Management and Budget, run by director Mick Mulvaney, a deficit hawk and former House lawmaker. Turner and HASC Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have warned that U.S. troop readiness and maintenance are at a critical low-point.
"Do you know you have planes that do not fly, that you have pilots that don't get flying time, that you have soldiers that are not ready, and that you have shortfalls in ammunition, training and spare parts," Turner asked. "Because the budget that they gave us doesn't fix that. What did OMB tell you? Because we want to fix it now, we can't wait."
Mattis defended the 2018 budget as an effort to stabilize readiness problems, while "the real growth comes in '19 to '23, with a program OMB is keenly aware we need. President Trump is keenly aware, and we have his support on this."
HASC Seapower Chair Rob Wittman, R-Va., criticized Trump's budget as aiming toward 308 ships versus Trump's promised 355, and called the near-term goal of building eight or nine new ships "counterintuitive" in the face of adversaries growing their own capacity.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., the Seapower Subcommittee's vice-chair, touted estimates it would take another $5 billion per year to reach a 355 Navy, and asked Dunford when the administration would "get to that point."
Dunford replied he, too, was concerned the ships would be "late to need" and that unstable federal funding would drive up costs.
"If we told a shipbuilder with predictability that we were going to build 10 ships, it would take 10 ships's worth of steel, 10 ships' worth of copper piping, wiring and [DoD would know] it could cost 'X,'" Dunford said. "That fact that we don't have predictability for shipbuilding means we pay much more."
In prepared testimony, Mattis leaned on the issue of unpredictable funding, urging Congress to fully fund the president's budget, to do it in a timely way and eliminate statutory budget caps, known colloquially as sequestration.
Dunford, in his prepared testimony, warned the U.S. is losing its advantage over potential adversaries, and "without sustained, sufficient, and predictable funding, I assess that within five years we will lose our ability to project power."
Lawmakers have frustrated the Pentagon by failing to pass budgets by the start of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, and failing to repeal budget caps. Pro-defense lawmakers have pressed to lift the caps for the military alone, stalemating with Democrats who have insisted on parity between defense and non-defense spending and deficit hawks who oppose domestic spending.
Mattis had sharp words for Capitol Hill.
"In the past, by failing to pass a budget on time or eliminate the threat of sequestration, Congress sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role," Mattis said. "It has blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative, and placed troops at greater risk. Despite the tremendous efforts of this committee, Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.