How Will the Ukraine Crisis Affect the Defense Budget?

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) (2nd R) speaks as (L-R) U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), U.S. Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), House Armed Services Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Howard P. 'Buck' McKeon (R-CA), U.S. Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), U.S. Rep. Rob Whittman (R-VA) listen during a news conference March 1, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Members of the House Armed Services Committee held a news conference on 'the day that sequestration will take effect, to call for an end to repeated cuts to our national security and focus on the real drivers of our debt and deficits.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Charles S. Clark, Government Executive
Charles S. Clark, Government Executive
April 29, 2014, 10:49 a.m.

Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s on­go­ing push in­to Ukraine rep­res­ents a “start­ling brazen­ness not seen in his­tory,” a top House de­fense thinker said on Monday. “It means we need to ex­pand the range of mil­it­ary op­tions for which we have to be pre­pared,” ac­cord­ing to Rep. Mac Thorn­berry, R-Texas, a mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vice Com­mit­tee.

On a re­cent trip to Asia just ahead of Pres­id­ent Obama, “I heard that China is a rising power and the U.S. is a de­clin­ing one, which doesn’t mean con­flict is in­ev­it­able, only that there’s the po­ten­tial for in­creas­ing com­plex­ity,” Thorn­berry told a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion pan­el on the fu­ture of de­fense spend­ing.

The House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, Thorn­berry said, agrees with Obama’s stand on the need to abide by treaty com­mit­ments and seek a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion to the Ukraine crisis. “But our al­lies need for us to be a re­li­able friend, so we must plan for a range of op­tions,” he ad­ded. “Slowly ratchet­ing up sanc­tions as in Ukraine seems not to be ef­fect­ive.”

What is needed is a hike in de­fense spend­ing be­cause “what Rus­sia and China and oth­ers re­spect is strength, the num­ber of ships, and no oth­er lan­guage,” he ad­ded. “There’s no ma­gic num­ber of 3 per­cent or 5 per­cent that means we’re safe,” Thorn­berry said. “But the world is watch­ing what we do, and even though we thought the Cold war was over, what Rus­sia is do­ing now is a big deal.”

His Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­part, Rep. Rick Larsen of Wash­ing­ton, said Obama’s re­cent trip to Asia to re­bal­ance the U.S. pos­ture there was “largely suc­cess­ful, a work in pro­gress that’s pro­gress­ing.” The de­fense de­bate must be broad and in­clude dis­cus­sion of health care, trade, dip­lomacy and eco­nom­ic growth, he said. “Today’s budget gives me very little hope Con­gress will re-ad­dress the se­quester, cuts from which still loom from 2016 on,” Larsen noted. ” I see my­self tak­ing a vote some late night in the fu­ture, and noth­ing fo­cuses the mind like a man about to be hanged. But when we deal with the se­quester, we can’t just deal with dis­cre­tion­ary or de­fense spend­ing but must ad­dress 100 per­cent of the budget.”

Larsen said the sanc­tions, which the United States ex­pan­ded on Monday to tar­get friends of Putin — as well as the re­cent de­ploy­ment of U.S. troops to the Balt­ic states — are a “huge pen­alty on Putin.” But the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent “has no con­cern about what our de­fense budget will look like two to three years from now; he is con­cerned with how we use it today,” Larsen ad­ded.

The de­fense budget’s main prob­lem, Larsen said, is that “while we are in­vest­ing in the mil­it­ary, we are also in­vest­ing in mil­it­ary things that are no longer use­ful or ef­fect­ive, be­cause Con­gress and the ser­vices’ bur­eau­cra­cies want to hold onto them. It’s not to say that a big­ger budget is a bet­ter budget,” Larsen ad­ded, warn­ing that many U.S. al­lies (un­like Rus­sia and China) are out-in­vest­ing the United States in edu­ca­tion, medi­cine and trans­port­a­tion. Larsen also im­plored the Pentagon to get a handle on its on­go­ing audit­ing prob­lems.

The audit­ing is­sue, agreed Thorn­berry, con­cerns all in Con­gress who are frus­trated that the Pentagon can’t “show how much am­muni­tion has been wasted be­cause we can’t keep track of where we got it.”

An­oth­er key tool in the spend­ing de­bate, Thorn­berry ad­ded, is Pentagon ac­quis­i­tion re­form, a pro­ject that House lead­ers re­cently tasked him with lead­ing. “Ac­quis­i­tion people ask me why I think re­form might work this time,” Thorn­berry said, “and I tell them it’s bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al, and bi-whatever you say to mean you’re work­ing with the Pentagon,” led by Frank Kend­all, un­der­sec­ret­ary for ac­quis­i­tion, tech­no­logy and lo­gist­ics.

“All agree that our sys­tems cost more but also that ac­quis­i­tions are too slow,” Thorn­berry said. “China can build a ship in 36 months — we’re not in the ball­park.” The an­swer won’t be a 2,000-page bill, he ad­ded, but per­haps a cent­ral ac­quis­i­tion au­thor­ity, pi­lot pro­grams, and stronger over­sight work­ing with the de­part­ment on reg­u­la­tions. “We have to look deep­er and change the in­cent­ives.”

Still, tam­ing the ac­quis­i­tion pro­cess “won’t be enough” to con­front the rising de­fense spend­ing by Rus­sia and China as well as the “tre­mend­ous num­ber of threats” com­ing from al Qaeda and the com­pet­i­tion in space-based weapons, Thorn­berry said. “You’d have to do a lot of ac­quis­i­tion re­form to get a new air­craft car­ri­er. There aren’t enough re­sources un­der any scen­ario. We need to do both.”

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