SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Despite the military threat that China poses, it’s the dysfunction back home in Washington that’s the real enemy.
That was the bitter consensus among Pentagon officials and lawmakers this weekend at the Reagan National Defense Forum, which kicked off just hours after Congress approved a temporary funding patch to keep the government’s lights on until mid-February.
Until then, the Pentagon can’t start up any new technology programs. Nor can it reap the benefits of a $25 billion addition to the defense budget that lawmakers agreed to with a broad bipartisan majority. New ships and aircraft to replace the old ones will just have to wait.
And no one seems to know how to fix it.
“You see how fast the threat is moving,” Pentagon research and engineering chief Heidi Shyu said on the sidelines of the event. “Come on. We got to come together as a country [and] understand that I need a budget. And that this whole department needs a budget moving forward.”
Shyu, along with Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, have come up with a plan to start experimenting with over 30 new technologies that need funding by 2023. But losing half a year of planning due to the CR “puts us further behind our adversaries,” she added. “It’s a self-inflicted wound.”
Putting federal spending on autopilot until at least February locks in funding at the previous year’s level and doesn’t allow the Pentagon to start any new programs or ramp up existing ones unless Congress votes for exceptions for specific programs. For the Pentagon, it means a smaller budget than even President Joe Biden proposed.
“The political part of the budget process is not in sync with the bureaucratic part of the budget,” one Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, said at the forum.
Senate Armed Services Chair Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) estimated that if the CR continues for a full year, the effect would be like cutting the military budget by $35 billion, which would wipe out the $25 billion increase Congress approved, and erase the small Biden bump.
Of particular concern are research and development efforts to develop new hypersonic glide vehicles as the U.S. struggles to keep pace with Chinese and Russian advances in the area.
“We expected an increase in hypersonic R&D and investment and pre-production that won’t be able to happen [under a CR],” Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet said at the forum. “Losing a year in that race with China and Russia is unaffordable.”
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said she has warned the Republican congressional leadership about how the failure to pass a full-year budget is hamstringing the efforts to confront Chinese and other military threats.
“We end up putting Band-Aids on legacy systems that should have been in mothballs years ago,” Ernst, a former Army officer, said in an interview. “We can’t continue to do this.”
“CRs are inexcusable. They do damage to our national security,” added Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the hawkish Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services’ Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
Some lawmakers and Pentagon officials were questioning late last week whether they would even make it to the event in California, given the very real chance the government would shut down on Friday at midnight.
House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) pointed the finger at lawmakers who are “more focused on winning the message of the day” than on collective actions such as enacting spending and policy bills and other urgent legislation.
“The days of us being able to go off in a room, cut the deal, come back and everybody going ‘Yeah, good. let’s vote and go home,’ are gone,” Smith said during a panel on the budget. “We’ve got to bring all these people in.”
“The good news is there are still a lot of people, the members who are here, who do understand all of that — understand we have to pass appropriations bills, we have to raise the debt ceiling, we have to pass the NDAA,” he said. “We still have that skill set in Congress that is determined to get it done, but it’s gonna be real difficult.”
And there may be progress on that front this week. Congress is looking to clinch a compromise defense policy bill that endorses a $25 billion increase to Biden’s Pentagon budget. The emerging deal comes after weeks of fits and starts for the National Defense Authorization Act in the Senate that set negotiators scrambling to finish the bill before the traditional year-end deadline.
But the bill doesn’t provide any funding to the Pentagon, which along with other federal agencies will have to make do with a funding patch for at least another two months. To make the budget boost a reality, lawmakers need to enact funding legislation for the full fiscal year.
Smith predicted a 50-50 chance that the new stopgap, signed into law by Biden on Friday, will be the last before Congress finally enacts full-year funding for the military.
“We’re trapped in battles over a thousand different things, but the basic running of the government continues to be enormously important,” Smith said. “We’ve got to make sure that Congress functions to do that because a CR and, I don’t know, $740 billion is worse than a full appropriations budget at $700 [billion].”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told POLITICO that he’s losing out on increases in research and development and ramped-up production, but a particular worry is delays in “new starts [and] getting new programs that we didn’t have authorized in the previous year initiated.”
“So essentially you lose a year, which is irrecoverable,” he added in an interview. “You can’t get it back. All the money in the world doesn’t buy time.”
He said the readiness of the force could also see a “real impact.”
Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin argued the White House and Pentagon need to be more vocal on the need to pivot toward confronting China.
“We just haven’t had that forcing function and that leadership saying, ‘OK, here’s what we need to do.’ We actually got the concept right,” Gallagher said in a brief interview. “We need to deny the PLA the ability to invade Taiwan, and our second most stressing scenario is to deny Russia the ability to invade or mess with the Baltics.
“Here’s a map. Here are the things we need to do that,” he said. “That conversation has never happened in my five years in Congress.”