On Tuesday, former Marine general and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke before the House Armed Services Committee to warn them against further obstructing American military funding over partisan political issues.
Mattis began his testimony, the primary purpose of which was to discuss the Defense Department’s National Defense Strategy and its Nuclear Posture Review, by highlighting the sacrifices that American troops are making to shore up the nation’s security [emphasis in bold throughout is mine]:
“Up front, I need to note, three days from now I will visit our nation’s first Security Force Assistance Brigade in Fort Benning, Georgia as they prepare to deploy to Afghanistan. To advance the security of our nation, these troops are putting themselves in harm’s way, in effect signing a blank check payable to the American people with their lives. They do so despite Congress’s abrogation of its Constitutional responsibility to provide sufficient, stable funding.
"Our military have been operating under debilitating continuing resolutions for more than 1000 days during the past decade. These men and women hold the line for America while lacking this most fundamental congressional support—a predictable budget.”
Mattis’s harsh condemnation of Congress’s failure to provide stable funding for the military continued as the former general alluded to the possibility that congressional Democrats will force another government shutdown:
“[W]e are again on the verge of a government shutdown, or, at best, another damaging continuing resolution. I regret that without sustained, predictable appropriations, my presence here today wastes your time because no strategy can survive, as you pointed out Chairman, without the funding necessary to resource it.”
This is an embarrassingly basic point to have to remind Congress about. Regardless of anyone’s personal views about U.S. foreign policy, it should be easy for our lawmakers to agree that setting down concrete financial commitments to the military so that they can engage in sensible, long-term military planning is essential to protecting the country. In the meantime, authoritarian countries that want to thwart America’s objectives have complete control over their vision of the future and how they can achieve their goals, even while having fewer resources than us to do so.
Going back to Mattis’s testimony, the secretary went on to highlight an important shift in his department's focus away from fourth generation threats like terrorism back to a more traditional understanding of “Great Power” states fighting with one another for influence and control in the world:
“[I]n our new Defense Strategy, Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. National Security. Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare—air, land, sea, cyber, and space.”
Mattis attributed America’s loss of its “competitive edge” to Congress’s now standard behavior of passing hodge-podge temporary continuing resolutions to fund the military:
“Under frequent continuing resolutions and sequesters’ budget caps, our advantages continue to shrink. The combination of rapidly changing technology, the negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous stretch of combat in our nation’s history, and insufficient funding have created an overstretched and under-resourced military.
"During last week’s State of the Union address, President Trump said: ‘Weakness is the surest path to conflict.’ To those who might suggest that we should accept a yearlong continuing resolution, it would mean a return to a disastrous sequestration level of funding for the military. And in a world awash in change and increasing threats, there is no room for complacency.
"History makes clear that no country has a pre-ordained right to victory on the battlefield.”
Later in his testimony, the secretary singled out Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran as rising threats to American security and paid special attention to the notion that the U.S. is falling behind in keeping its nuclear arsenal sufficiently technologically updated:
“[W]e must recognize that deterrence and arms control can only be achieved with a credible [nuclear] capability. A review of the global nuclear situation is sobering.
"While Russia has reduced only the number of its accountable strategic nuclear force, as agreed upon in the new START treaty, at the same time, Russia has been modernizing these weapons as well as other nuclear systems. Moscow advocates a theory of nuclear escalation for military conflict.
"China too is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces, pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities. It is also modernizing its conventional military to challenge U.S. military superiority.
"Despite universal condemnation in the United Nations, North Korea’s nuclear provocations threaten regional and global peace and Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain an unresolved concern. Globally, nuclear terrorism remains a tangible threat.”
Mattis gave specific numbers to back up his argument that America’s chief potential adversaries are accelerating up to America’s nuclear delivery capabilities before re-iterating our core logic for needing a strong nuclear force:
“[N]uclear delivery system development over the last eight years shows numerous advances by Russia, by China, and by North Korea versus the near absence of such activity by the United States, with competitors and adversaries developing 34 new systems in that time, as compared to only one for the U.S.—the F-35 aircraft.
"Nuclear deterrence will continue to play a critical role in preventing nuclear attack and large scale conventional warfare between nuclear armed states for the foreseeable future.”
For all the reasons given above, Mattis called on Congress to lift spending caps on the defense budget and provide $1.4 billion over the next two years for the military. Afterwards, he launched into another stunning reproach of lawmakers who have failed to fulfill their responsibility to pass a budget for years [thanks to RCP for the following transcript]:
“Let me be clear: As hard as the last 16 years of war have been on our military, no enemy in the field has done as much to harm the readiness of U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act's defense spending caps, worsened by operating for 10 of the last 11 years under continuing resolutions of varied and unpredictable duration.
“For too long, we have asked our military to carry on stoically with a success-at-any-cost attitude. Our troops work tirelessly to accomplish every mission, with increasingly inadequate and misaligned resources, simply because Congress has not maintained regular order. The fact that our volunteer military has performed so well is a credit to their dedication and professionalism. We expect the men and women of our military to be faithful in their service, even when going in harm's way. We must also remain faithful to them.
“The consequences of not providing a budget are clear. Even though we are protecting ongoing operations from continuing resolution disruptions, each increment of funding in support of our partners in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria requires a 15-day congressional notification. My commanders in the field write to me for help in getting timely and predictable funds for their efforts as they work to execute our strategy against the enemy in the field.
“Additionally, should we stumble into a year-long continuing resolution, your military will not be able to provide pay for our troops by the end of the fiscal year; will not recruit the 15,000 Army soldiers and 4,000 Air Force airmen required to fill critical manning shortfalls; we will not maintain our ships at sea with the proper balance between operations and time in port for maintenance; we will ground aircraft due to a lack of maintenance and spare parts; we will deplete the ammunition, training and manpower required to deter war; and delay contracts for vital acquisition programs necessary to modernize the force.
“Further, I cannot overstate the impact to our troops' morale from all this uncertainty. Today, as I sit here, we are engaged in prudent planning in the Pentagon for another disruptive government shutdown.”
Mattis closed his remarks by once again imploring Congress to take action, urging that they not “hold our nation’s defense hostage” in service to partisan “disagreements on domestic policy”:
“[I]t is Congress alone which has the Constitutional authority to raise and support armies and to provide and maintain a navy. We need Congress back in the driver’s seat, not in the spectator’s seat, of the Budget Control Act’s indiscriminate and automatic cuts. I know that in time of a major war, Congress will provide our military with all it needs, but money at the time of crisis fails to deter war, and you know we would be at that point to have nothing -- no time to prepare, as it takes months and years to produce the munitions, the training, and readiness required to fight well. To carry out this strategy you rightly directed we develop, we need you to pass a budget now. If we are to sustain our military’s primacy, we need budget predictability.
"Congress must take action now to ensure our military’s lethality is sufficient to defend our way of life, to preserve the promise of prosperity, and to pass on the freedoms we enjoy to the next generation, and I ask that you not let disagreements on domestic policy continue to hold our nation’s defense hostage.”
On Wednesday, after the Senate announced a bipartisan spending deal, Mattis condensed several of the main points of his Tuesday testimony into a short address that he gave in front of the White House press pool and which preceded their daily press briefing.