WASHINGTON ― If progressives aim to cut the U.S. Defense Department’s top-line budget or the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad, they’re likely see pushback from a fellow Democrat: the incoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel, Sen. Jon Tester.

In an interview with Defense News on Monday, the Montana lawmaker said he’s open to targeted, not across-the-board cuts, and he reiterated his support for modernizing intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are partially based at his state’s Malmstrom Air Force Base ― and support for the “incredible deterrent” that ICBMs provide.

The Air Force plans for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent being built by Northrop Grumman to replace the Minuteman III ICBM. But some Democrats and arms control advocates have pushed to cut the program amid the Pentagon’s estimate that it will cost $100 billion to build.

“So we’ll be getting briefings moving forward about the threat and the deterrent levels of those ICBMs,” Tester said. “As of right now, I think it’s important that we move forward with the GBSD because I believe there’s still an important deterrent.”

Tester outlined his budget priorities and talked about his emphasis on oversight.

“The bottom line is we can always look for ways to get better bang for the buck, and I do think we need to listen to the military and hold them accountable, just like we need to hold accountable the contractors out there,” he said. “I’m open to making the system work better and more efficiently, but I never want to give up the oversight and the accountability.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your priorities as you take over as chairman?

My priorities are what any American wants, and that is really to make sure that our defense is adequate to keep this country safe. Oftentimes I get into questions about whether [the next defense budget] is going to be 3 percent or 5 percent more, or 3 percent or 5 percent less. The way I look at the budget is making sure the military gets what it needs, and the military needs what it gets. So I’m going to be doing my best, and it’s a massive budget, but I’m going to do my best to make sure how we’re spending money and the taxpayer is getting the biggest bang for the buck and this country is kept safe.

If I had two personal [priorities], I think we need to continue to focus on research because research is really, really important; and then I would say cyber is going to be really important to any sort of conflict we’re going to be fighting.

With this year’s budget, the U.S. is dealing with a price tag associated with the response to COVID-19, and that’s going to put pressure on the federal budget. Progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, last year pushed for an across-the-board defense cut, whereas Sen. Jack Reed has talked about reshuffling priorities within the defense budget. And then you have some Republicans who’d like to see a 3-5 percent increase. What’s your feeling on an across-the-board cut?

I don’t support across-the-board cuts. I think that’s not what we’re sent here to do. You’re sent here to use your brain, use a little common sense and do what’s best. I am going to be talking to Jack this week about these and other issues. I fall much more toward where you describe Jack Reed, which is: Figure out what your priorities are and fund them.

Cyber is one of your priorities; and by research, I take it you’re talking about emerging technologies. What’s impacting your thinking there?

I just think [warfare is] going to become more and more advanced and more and more complicated, and we need to try to get ahead of the curve on what our adversaries are doing. If you talk to folks who have been around a while, we’re usually good at fighting the last war, but we don’t really plan very well for for the next one. I hope we don’t have to fight the next one, but I think cyber is going to be a big part of any sort of threats against us ― or potential offensive measures that we might take.

We hear authorizers talk a lot about tweaking the acquisition process to make it easier for emerging technologies to get into the hands of troops, but last week there was a think tank report about reforming the defense appropriations process and budgeting process, the PPBE. What are your thoughts on flexible budgeting for the Pentagon?

We need to work with the Pentagon to make sure we give them the flexibility that they need, but we need to have intense oversight ― on all monies, but this is a massive budget ― to make sure that they’re utilizing those dollars in a way that Congress intended. I don’t know anything about the PPBE and that story, and I don’t know what they mean by acquisition reform, but if that means holding accountable the people you’re buying stuff from, then count me in on that too.

The bottom line is we can always look for ways to get a better bang for the buck, and I do think we need to listen to the military and hold them accountable, just like we need to hold accountable the contractors out there. I’m open to making the system work better and more efficiently, but I never want to give up the oversight and the accountability.

Senior Airman Zachariah Abdul-Aziz views his descent for a rappel down an entrance to a launch facility on Aug. 21, 2020, near Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. (Senior Airman Daniel Brosam/U.S. Air Force)
Senior Airman Zachariah Abdul-Aziz views his descent for a rappel down an entrance to a launch facility on Aug. 21, 2020, near Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. (Senior Airman Daniel Brosam/U.S. Air Force)

You’re known as a strong support of the ICBM mission, but some of your fellow Democrats argue the ICBM replacement — the GBSD program — is too expensive. Instead of a wholesale reduction of that leg of the nuclear triad, would you be in favor of a proposal from arms control advocates to do a service-life extension of the Minuteman III as a compromise?

For the 60 of the 64 years I’ve been alive, those ICBMs have been an incredible deterrent, and I firmly believe they’re still an incredible deterrent and we still need to keep them as an incredible deterrent. But I also have never served on any of the committees that give classified briefings on the threat. So we’ll be getting briefings moving forward about the threat and the deterrent levels of those ICBMs. As of right now, I think it’s important that we move forward with the GBSD because I believe there’s still an important deterrent.

Arms control advocates think the Minuteman III can have its service life extended, whereas uniformed military officials who are responsible for the nuclear arsenal argue the opposite.

What I want to look at is not the extension of the life [of the Minuteman III], but what is the threat and are they still an effective deterrent to the threats that are coming. I was raised during the Cold War, and I know that Russia was much more of a threat in the 1960s. China is becoming more of a concern, let’s just put it that way. What role do [ICBMs] play with China? What role do they play with North Korea? What role do they play with Iran? And the same thing, by the way, with all the other military acquisitions that we’ve made: Are we right-sizing it to where the threats are coming from?

Have you talked with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin or other defense officials?

I’m trying to get around, and I spent this weekend visiting with some of the folks in the Air Force and the Army about what we have and where we’re going. I visited with Secretary Austin on his priorities about 10 days ago now, and we’re going to continue to have those conversations. We’re going to get the budget from the president probably in April, or maybe May, and we’re really going to be having a lot of conversations with them about what’s in that budget and why.

What’s your sense of the timeline? Biden administration officials say they didn’t get full cooperation from the outgoing Trump administration and that that’s caused delays. What does an April or May time frame mean for Congress passing a full federal budget?

We need to roll up our sleeves and work harder as a congress to try to get this thing done by the end of July, and by the latest September. This is just a matter of committing ourselves to getting it done. It’s a matter of looking at the budget, asking tough questions, modifying the budget where necessary, putting it up for a vote and moving forward. If in fact they’ve been delayed some, Congress needs to buck it up and get it done before the end of the fiscal year.

You came into Congress before earmarks were shelved, and now House Democrats are talking about reinstating them, but there’s not an agreement with the Senate. What do you want to see happen around earmarks?

If we’re going to reinstate earmarks, it’s got to be done in a bipartisan way, or it shouldn’t be done. Whether they’re limited to nonprofits or to so many earmarks per [lawmaker], all that is less important to me than the fact that I’ve talked to most people on the Appropriations Committee about earmarks. They like them, and they wish they were back. Most importantly, they have to be transparent so people know what the hell they’re voting on and so they can challenge those earmarks on the floor. Would I prefer they go to nonprofits? Probably, but I think I can live with them either way.

If earmarks are revived, is there a benefit to the military because it smooths the way for appropriations packages to pass on time? Getting budget deals has been such a grind.

The benefit of earmarks is that they help bring people together so we get stuff passed, and that’s been a challenge since they’ve gone away. If they’re included in a way that is transparent and can be effective, I think it could help with passage of appropriations.