WASHINGTON — If the Pentagon faces tighter budgets in the coming years, departmental planners should look to cut legacy programs first in order to preserve funding for modernization requirements, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Tuesday.

“Frankly, my inclination is not to risk any in the modernization programs; it’s to go back and pull out more of the legacy programs,” Esper said in response to a question about what modernization priorities, such as shipbuilding, might be on the table.

“We need to move away from legacy [programs] and we need to invest those dollars into the future. We have a lot of legacy programs out there right now. I could pick dozens out from all branches of the services. So that is where I would start,” he continued.

“What that would mean is probably accepting some near-term risk, but I think that is something [that has to happen], given the trajectory that we see China is on, and we know where Russia may be going in the coming years. So that is one place where I would begin, but we’re going to be working through this course of action.”

The secretary also emphasized that he’s not going to “risk the strategic deterrent,” reiterating that modernizing America’s nuclear capabilities remains the department’s top priority.

Budgets were already expected to be flat or decline slightly in the coming years before the coronavirus pandemic, which has required the U.S. government to pump trillions of dollars into the economy. Esper said that “tremendous load” is something the department must consider as it plots a budget strategy for fiscal 2022 and beyond.

His comments match what the secretary said Monday during an appearance at the Brookings Institution, where he said the spending spree in response to the spread of COVID-19 means the department’s ongoing efforts to find internal efficiencies must continue to bear fruit.

The department claimed savings of $6.5 billion in FY19 through process reforms and the sale of obsolete equipment, with another $5.7 billion in spending reallocated from legacy programs to modernization priorities.

During the Brookings event, Esper noted that the department will “likely need” extra money from Congress if a fourth coronavirus supplemental fund is worked out, in order to help cover costs for medical supplies procured by the Pentagon.

At the start of his press event, the secretary used prepared remarks to note that top defense leaders will be appearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee tomorrow to discuss the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to allow Ligado to operate in the L-band spectrum, a move long opposed by the department because of concerns it will negatively impact GPS.

Esper said the decision “disregards the many objections of industry and the inner agency, grounded in years of hard data and science. Ultimately this will cause harmful interference to the GPS network, jeopardizing our nation’s security, prosperity and way of life.”

The secretary declined to comment on why the FCC moved ahead with the decision. C4ISRNET, a sister publication of Defense News, has reported the decision came amid political pressure from top Trump administration officials.

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.

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