President Donald Trump on Friday ordered the Pentagon to immediately set about the work of figuring out how much money the Defense Department would need to overcome what military leaders have said are serious readiness problems brought on by years of political deadlock over the federal budget.
In a memo he signed at the Pentagon during a symbolic swearing-in ceremony for Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump told the new secretary to launch a 30-day examination of a broad set of measures of military readiness, from maintenance to munitions and infrastructure to manning and training.
Also over the next month, DoD will work with the Office of Management and Budget to draw up an emergency supplemental 2017 budget request. The funds would be used to pay for any immediate readiness gaps the Pentagon review identifies, and the order also tells OMB and DoD to use to results of the readiness review as a basis for Defense budgets in 2018 and beyond.
In addition to the near-term cash infusion for readiness, the order set a broad agenda of “rebuilding” the U.S. military through a new National Defense Strategy Trump ordered DoD to produce in preparation for its 2018 budget submission, including a new review of the country’s nuclear weapons posture and its capability to defend itself from missile attacks.
“As we prepare our budget request or Congress — and I think Congress is going to be very happy to see it — our military strength will be questioned by no one, but neither will our dedication to peace,” the president said in remarks at the Pentagon Friday. “We do want peace.”
Military readiness shortfalls have been a persistent concern on the part of not only the military’s top officers, but also its civilian leaders since the onset of sequestration in 2013. Indeed, the Obama administration’s final budget proposal lamented “enduring readiness challenges” brought on by the 2011 Budget Control Act and its later requirement for across-the-board spending reductions.
To help solve them, the 2017 budget proposed $14 billion more in Defense spending than is currently allowed under the caps, but Congress has yet to approve any federal agency’s spending plans for the fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1. If the new president hopes to spend more on readiness and modernization in 2017 and beyond, he will have to overcome the political deadlock that has kept the BCA caps mostly intact until now. Under current law, they will remain in effect until 2022.
In recent testimony, the military’s uniformed service chiefs have told Congress that they have been able to solve some of the short-term concerns that plagued each service in 2013, when sequestration first took effect, but that their reprioritization of funds toward immediate training needs for current operations came at the expense of long-term, “full-spectrum” readiness, including the upkeep of military bases and investments in research and development for future weapons systems.
“One of the key factors for improving readiness is time,” Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September. “Our goal is to have regular Army brigade combat teams achieve 60-66 percent full spectrum readiness, and I estimate that it will take the Army approximately four years to achieve that. That’s assuming no significant increase in demand, and that we don’t have sequestration levels of funding.”
To whatever extent the military has an ongoing readiness problem, Defense experts generally agree that it cannot be immediately fixed with a short-term influx of cash.
Dakota Wood, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the military services have done their best to manage uncertain budgets, including by prioritizing their funds toward current operations in the Middle East at the expense of training and equipping themselves for future conflicts that are likely to be much more complicated.
“It isn’t a matter of figuring out what problems need to be addressed or where additional funds can be best spent or savings obtained. My personal observation is that the military services have done this analysis,” Wood said in testimony before the Senate last week, prior to Trump’s memorandum. “They know what they need, and have prioritized those needs for every additional dollar they might be provided. In my judgment, their analysis is, by and large, right on target,” Wood said. “What they fear is imbalance. They are concerned about having too many people and too little equipment or the reverse, too much equipment and too few people.”
Thomas Mahnken, the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, agreed that readiness and modernization have suffered in recent years, but counseled against opening a floodgate of new funds before it was clear how the Pentagon would effectively spend them.
“Improving readiness and modernizing the force will require additional resources beyond those permitted by the Budget Control Act, but we need to keep in mind that the Defense Department’s capacity to absorb an infusion of resources is limited,” he said. “The Pentagon today is a lot like a person who has been slowly starving for years; there are limits to how effectively it can spend a large infusion of cash. One byproduct of our neglect of modernization over the past decade and a half is that there are few programs that are ready right now to accept new funds. Rebuilding the American military will take time.”