WASHINGTON — On the eve of rolling out his first budget since taking the top job in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is showing his support for the Air Force’s multi-domain concept and a revolution in naval shipbuilding.

But in an exclusive interview with Defense News, Esper also indicated that a major update to the Pentagon’s war plans will be a driving factor in how the department shapes its next budget request, to be unveiled a year from now.

The secretary acknowledged that his stamp on the fiscal year 2021 budget, coming Monday, will be somewhat limited, given he took office in August, by which point most of the service budget work had already been completed. But he indicated that major budget movements may be on the table come FY22.

Click here for more coverage of the FY21 budget rollout.

“The services have already developed their budgets at that point. So now it’s at Office of the Secretary of Defense level. As you know, at this point I was able to go through budgets, free up money. I was able to move some money around. But, to me, my big impact will be on the upcoming budget,” Esper said Friday.

“This budget will reflect as much of my imprint on it as I could make in three months,” he added. “The next budget that we're developing now, clearly, will have my fingerprints all over it.”

Those fingerprints start with Esper’s ongoing development of what he described as a “modern, up-to-date, approved war plan against our near peers, at least one of them, so that we know it's current and it's in the post [National Defense Strategy] environment. We don't have one of those right now.”

He added that plan, which is “a big pivot point for us,” should be completed sometime in the summer. But in the meantime, the department will be conducting war games, exercises and compute simulations that can help inform the development of the FY22 budget request.

“One thing that our war gaming and analysis will look at is the total force fight. You just don't fight one service. You don't fight the Army, you don't fight the Air Force, you don't fight the Navy, you fight the team, the joint team. That's how we've got to experiment.”

In addition to the war plan effort, a series of reviews launched by Esper — including one studying the force levels at the combatant commands and one looking for ways to find savings to reinvest into modernization efforts — will likely have a major impact on what the FY22 budget looks like.

Multi-domain investments

Notably, Esper threw his support behind the Air Force’s joint all domain control (JADC2) concept, which seeks to connect its air, space and cyber assets together with platforms from the other military services. The concept has been championed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who will be retiring this summer.

“You've got to be able to have that. The Air Force is moving out on JADC2. I like where they're going. I like what they're doing,” Esper said. “The other services are taking a close look at it, but we clearly need to have the ability to exchange information and data and voice across [uncommon] systems, across services, across platforms. That's the way we'll win in the future is being able to move data quickly.

“A drone sees an enemy target, relays it to an airplane, an F-35, which relays it to a Navy ship, which either shoots it or relays it back to a Marine Corps long-range precision fire that’s island-based,” Esper added. “You’ve got to be able to exchange information like that.”

The secretary also gave strong backing to the idea the Navy needs to start investing in small, optionally-manned or unmanned surface vessels in order to stay ahead of military advancements from near-peer competitors.

“These designs must ensure the future fleet can remain ready and lethal over its lifetime by being agile, affordable, sustainable, and adaptable to an ever-changing and more complex maritime security environment,” he said.

What happens to this year’s budget request when it hits Congress is always a major question hanging over the department. But 2020 — an election year, in the wake of the impeachment of President Donald Trump — may prove to overtake the largely bipartisan work that has defined the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

Already this year, Mac Thornberry, the top republican on the HASC, publicly warned that Democrats pushing for a vote that could limit Trump’s use of military force “threatens our ability to work together." He added, “we’re the exception around here and it will be harder and harder for us to be insulated from the partisan waves that overwhelm us if something like this takes place.”

Esper acknowledged that things are “always a little bit more complicated in an election year,” but expressed optimism that the bipartisan tradition will prevail on defense spending.

“I know that ranking members and chairmen work well together, and there's generally a sense of spirit of bipartisanship in those committees, so I'm confident they'll get it done. I would just ask that they get it done on time and with, again, adequate funding for what we need to do,” he said.

“We’re in this period of change right now. I’m trying hard to implement the NDS. That means we need to think differently. We need to move away from legacy. We need to move to the future.”

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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