SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Saturday threw his weight behind an op-ed from two top Republicans calling for greater funding for the Defense Department — and lining himself against Trump administration guidance to cut fiscal year 2020 defense spending.
“Fiscal solvency and strategic solvency can co-exist,” Mattis said at the Reagan National Defense Forum.
In a Friday Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Don’t cut military spending, Mr. President,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Calif., and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., warned that a smaller defense budget won’t have a major impact on fixing the national deficit, but would have painful repercussions on military equipment and end strength.
“Our top priority is the troops,” the pair wrote. “Any cut in the defense budget would be a senseless step backward.”
Mattis, in his speech Saturday, explicitly cited that op-ed approvingly, especially the idea put forth from the two members that cutting defense spending will not impact the deficit. Instead, major budget cuts “would be a dangerous disservice to our troops and the American people they serve and protect. We all know that America can afford survival,” he said.
The Pentagon had been preparing for a $733 billion budget for FY20, until a surprise announcement by President Donald Trump cut that to $700 billion. Pentagon planners have been scrambling the last few weeks to find ways to make those numbers work.
In a Q&A session afterwards, the secretary tried to downplay the potential chaos of such a surprise cut, calling it “the normal give and take of building the president’s budget,” adding “it should be challenging. We don’t want to spend any money in excess of what is needed on our defense.”
But Mattis indicated that he would push for more money behind doors, noting that Inhofe and Thornberry have laid out their view and “I would just tell you that the issue is in play, and I’ll give my advice to the president, I owe him the courtesy of that in private before I speak about it in public.”
“We have go to make certain we can restore America’s strength,” he added. “It’s up to me to make the logical argument about what the president’s submission should look like to the Office of Management and Budget, to the Congress ... at that point, the Congress will take our input on board.
“I’m optimistic at the end of the road we’ll have what we need to keep the country safe,” Mattis concluded.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.