Mattis Slams Lack of Budget Predictability As Greatest Threat

Mattis Slams Lack of Budget Predictability As Greatest Threat

Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned on Wednesday that Washington’s inability to provide funding stability is the greatest threat facing military readiness. If defense budget caps are not lifted, “we are questioning whether America has the ability to survive.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaking at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference, September 20, 2017. Screengrab.

Despite the thousands of causalities over the past 16 years of conflict, Mattis said, “nothing has done more damage to the readiness of our armed forces than the Continuing Resolutions that stop us from taking initiatives and the lack of budgetary predictability.” Companies will not change what they are doing if they do not know whether they will be funded for future years. “You can’t ask companies to take survival risks without some kind of reassurance.”

“If we don’t get budgetary predictability, if we don’t remove the defense caps, then we are questioning whether or not America has the ability to survive.  It’s that simple.”

Unless the budget caps are removed, the U.S. competitive edge will erode, he warned.  By contrast, if “Congress restores managerial integrity over the budget, this will enable us to invest in critical warfighting capability including in space and cyberspace where we need new starts in order to take advantage of what our industry can deliver…”

Mattis spoke at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber conference in National Harbor, MD, just outside Washington, DC.  A video of the address is on DOD’s website.

DOD and the rest of the government will be funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR) through December 8, 2017 nonetheless, however.  Congress passed and President Trump signed the CR earlier this month.  The House passed its version of the FY2018 defense appropriations bill in July, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has not approved its version yet.

The House and Senate have each passed their versions of the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) approving about $700 billion for defense (more than the President requested), but those are authorization bills, which set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide any money for DOD to spend.

More broadly, Congress has not reached any agreement to modify or repeal the budget caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The BCA requires automatic across-the-budget budget cuts called sequestration if Congress appropriates more funding than allowed by the caps.  Sequestration went into effect for FY2013 and the consequences were so dire that agreements were reached to relax the caps for FY2014-2015 and then for FY2016-2017, but nothing has been done for FY2018. President Trump ignored the cap for defense spending in his FY2018 budget request, taking an equivalent amount out of non-defense spending in order to meet the overall budget cap, but many in Congress object to the dramatic cuts to non-defense accounts he proposed.

How Congress will resolve the FY2018 budget cap issue remains unclear, but Mattis left no room for doubt about the impact on the military of continued budget uncertainty.

Mattis was not specific about what new starts are needed for space programs.  He did note, however, that while space was once considered a sanctuary, now it is a “contested” domain along with cyber.  Tracing the history, he explained that for centuries, land and sea were the two warfighting domains.  Air became a third domain about 100 years ago, but in just the past 10 years, “we’ve seen basically two new domains mature into warfighting realms. Never in history has this happened in our past.”

The United States will lose the technical and tactical advantages it has held since World War II, he warned, “if we fail to adapt …  at the speed of relevance…”

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