Defense Leaders Face Questions on Budget, Syria and Border Concerns
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The nation’s top civilian and uniformed defense leaders wanted to emphasize how the fiscal 2019 defense budget request will enable them to execute the new National Defense Strategy and support its priorities of generating a “more lethal force,” strengthening U.S. international alliances and partnerships and reforming the Defense Department’s business practices.
But for most of a four-hour hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on April 12, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford had to deal with frequently heated questions about President Donald J. Trump’s threats of missile strikes on Syria, what authority he had for such action, what was the justification and cost of National Guard deployments to the U.S.-Mexican border and the rules limiting service by transgender individuals.
There also were the questions about the threats from North Korea and Iran that tended to overwhelm the two leaders’ attempts to focus on their goals of reversing the readiness crisis and protecting the U.S. technological advantage in face of what Mattis called “the re-emergence of long-term great power competition.”
Mattis started the hearing with thanks for the recently signed 2018 omnibus spending bill and the bipartisan two-year budget agreement that “has finally freed us from the damaging continuing resolution funding process and will provide the sufficient and predictable funding needed to continue implementing the 2018 National Defense Strategy.”
The fiscal 2019 budget request, he said, provides the resources needed to build the forces able to defend the nation, deter adversaries and, if necessary, win in a fight.
“Our first line of effort is to build a more lethal force,” Mattis said. “We cannot expect success in tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s thinking, yesterday’s weapons or yesterday’s equipment.”
The budget also would support the recapitalization of “the Cold War-legacy nuclear deterrence forces,” and enhancement of the ballistic missile defenses.
Dunford gave his usual assurance that “the American military has a competitive advantage” over any potential adversary, but after years of restricted funding that advantage, he said, “has eroded.”
Challenged by Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va., on the adequacy of the shipbuilding funds in the budget request, Mattis said, “we always need more submarines, more ships. In a perfect world, we would have 350 ships.” But he repeated his response to other questions about funding by citing the need to allocate funds to achieve “a balanced force.”
Also questioned about the Military Sealift Command’s (MSC’s) badly aged Ready Reserve Fleet of cargo ships, that Wittman said were worthy of “a Smithsonian display,” Mattis said he has met with MSC commander Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne and is reviewing his plan to provide life extension for some ships and to buy others.
“We believe we have a pretty good path,” Mattis said.
Questioned by Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, on recent news reports about the jump in aircraft accidents, Mattis said the years of reduced defense funding left too many of the military’s aircraft unable to fly so pilots were not getting the flight hours they needed.
“We can’t repair our way out of this problem. We must buy new,” he said. “With your help, we’re going to come out from under this.”
Under bipartisan questioning about Syria, Mattis insisted that no decision has been made about military action in response to the apparent chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held area, despite Trump’s tweet about missiles coming soon.
Mattis said he was going to a meeting after the hearing in which he would be presenting “options.”
Asked repeatedly what authority the president had for such a strike, Mattis cited Article 2 of the constitution, which gives the president control of the military, and the need to protect U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. He also said the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force approved after the 9/11 attacks supported the other military actions against Islamic State and al-Qaida spin-off groups.
Mattis ducked most of the questions about why up to 4,000 National Guard troops were being sent to the border with Mexico or how much it would cost. He said those troops would not be building Trump’s border wall but might put up fences at the border along an Air Force bombing range in Arizona.
Mattis also had trouble dealing with repeated charges that the policy restricting transgender individuals from military service was a repeat of the past policies discriminating against African Americans, women and homosexuals. He said his report to Trump was his “best military advice” and noted that the policy was blocked by several federal courts.