WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon prepares to roll out its 2019 budget request next month, the big question on Capitol Hill is just how candid leaders will be about military readiness problems when they are called to testify.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cautioned military leaders during the 2017 budget season about publicly telegraphing readiness shortfalls. This came in the wake of press reports about ground units that could not deploy, aircraft that could not fly and ships that were wearing out.
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, added his voice to lawmakers who say Pentagon brass must be more transparent about military readiness problems, to help lawmakers make the case for increased defense spending.
“I think it’s very important people know, it’s very important for our officers to let the people in America know, that we have a real serious problem,” Inhofe, who chairs the committee’s readiness panel, said in a recent interview on C-Span’s “Newsmakers.”
“Because without [public] awareness, we’re not going to get the attention of the House members and Senate members that will have to make the decision on ultimately a budget for the military or a fix of the dilemma we have right now,” Inhofe said.
Those comments came as the staffs of the House and Senate armed services committees prepare the panel’s annual defense policy bill and await hearings on the Pentagon’s budget request — expected in mid-February.
In the same camp as Inhofe is HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, of Texas, who said earlier this month that he wants more openness.
“Some of the folks in DoD are reluctant to talk too openly about our shortfalls because you’re broadcasting that to your potential adversaries,” Thornberry said. “And I admit, it’s a fine balance. But if we’re going to convince my colleagues who are not on this committee, as well as the American people, to fix these things, I think we do have to at least talk somewhat openly about what our problems are.”
This week, Democrats and Republicans remained deadlocked over top-line numbers for an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal 2018, overdue since Sept. 30. Democrats, in return for their help getting to the 60 Senate votes needed to lift statutory spending caps, have demanded any increase for defense be matched on the non-defense side.
Federal government funding, meanwhile, runs out in 10 days, when the fourth and latest continuing resolution to fund the federal government expires.
The House GOP is leading a vote on a massive stand-alone defense appropriations bill for 2018 as early as Tuesday. It’s a token maneuver, as the bill unlikely to win the needed Democratic support to pass the Senate, but it allows House Republicans one more chance to accuse Senate Democrats of playing politics with the military.
“Not going to happen,” the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, said Thursday, of stand-alone defense appropriations. “We’re going to lift them both,” he said of budget caps for defense and non-defense.
The House bill would allocate $659.2 billion to DoD, with $584 billion in base budget funding and $75.1 billion for the wartime Overseas Contingency Operations account. A similar bill has passed the House before, but this would add $1.2 billion in OCO for the Afghanistan fight.
Otherwise, lawmakers also want Pentagon leaders to share plans for Syria and Iraq, after they refused to send a witness to testify earlier this month. A State Department official recently appeared alone at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the topic, prompting chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to say, “The Defense Department, with all due respect, did give us a tremendous run around as it relates to this hearing.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested earlier this month there would be an open-ended U.S. presence in Syria, after the Islamic State is defeated. Lawmakers in turn have complained such plans would exceed the counter-Islamic State mandate and lack domestic and international legal standing.
For his part, Inhofe voiced support for a residual military presence of some size — “you just can’t get up and walk away” — but he wants to hear the plan and the numbers from Mattis, in an open or closed hearing.
In the meantime, Inhofe plans to go to the region with a few other lawmakers to learn more.
“A lot of times you have to go there to find out, you have to talk to the troops on the ground, you have to talk to the commanders on the ground,” Inhofe said. “You always get a little more accurate story there than having an open hearing here in Washington, D.C.”
Tara Copp, of Military Times, contributed to this report.
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.