By Tony Bertuca , Inside Defense, February 26, 2020 at 5:20 PM

Pentagon leaders appeared before skeptical lawmakers today to pitch them a budget plan that would cut legacy weapons in favor of new technologies — a tall task given Congress’ traditional resistance to ambitious change and the Defense Department’s checkered modernization record.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee today the United States is at a “pivot point” in its great power competition with China and Russia.

“There is a fundamental issue at stake here and it is coming up in a lot of areas, so whether it is tankers and maritime and ships, and whatever, it is a question of divest to invest,” he said. “My military assessment is we are at a pivot point relative to the changing character of war and the geopolitical landscape that is occurring in the world today and we have got to make some fundamental choices and to lay down the markers for what that future military is going to look like five, 10 years.”

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has sent Congress a fiscal year 2021 budget request that would retire a host of legacy aircraft and cut Navy shipbuilding by $4 billion.

Aircraft cuts questioned

During the hearing, Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA), questioned the wisdom of some of the Defense Department’s planned divestitures, like the Air Force A-10, a squadron of which is located in his home district at Moody Air Force Base.

The Pentagon has proposed cutting 44 A-10s in FY-21.

“My concern with what I see from the department is sometimes we give up a weapon system that is extremely efficient to operate and extremely effective in the hopes that we are going to have one that is better at some point in the future,” he said.

Esper said the decision to cut A-10s is not a commentary on the aircraft itself, but on the need to prioritize defense funds during a year with a flat budget.

“Just like the Navy did with older ships, what the Air Force is trying to do is retire a number of aircraft,” he said. “It is not just some A-10s, but it is tankers and B-1s and F-15s. It was not a statement about the A-10, it was a statement about just retiring a legacy aircraft.”

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ), chairman of the tactical air and land forces subcommittee, questioned Esper on DOD’s proposal to retire Air Force KC-135 and KC-10 refueling aircraft amid delays to delivering replacement KC-46s that could take years.

“Regardless of what the fix is, it’s going be a period of three years possibly,” Norcross said. “Why will we be retiring more refuelers when we’re building up the capacity to meet those?”

Esper said he expects to work with U.S. Transportation Command to possibly reverse the decision and maintain legacy refueling systems. TRANSCOM, meanwhile, has sent Congress an unfunded priorities list recommending that $110 million of funding be restored to maintain 13 KC-135s and 10 KC-10s.

‘Heading for a major brawl’

Shipbuilding proved to be a contentious area during the hearing, with lawmakers criticizing the department for proposing significant cuts to Navy ships while withholding its statutorily mandated 30-year shipbuilding plan.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) called DOD’s shipbuilding budget “anemic,” castigating the department for, among other things, proposing only one Virginia-class submarine.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), chairman of the readiness subcommittee, warned Esper that he is “heading for a major brawl” with the committee over shipbuilding.

“The law is quite clear,” he said. “When you submit your budget, you are to submit the shipbuilding plan and for you to say you’re going to give it to us on your own good time and when you’re ready, you are not in line with the law.”

But Esper said he is working with the Navy on a comprehensive plan that could take a few more months.

“There’s some great work going on out there by the think tanks and other places about what the future should look like to deal with — let’s say China — in the year 2030 and beyond,” he said. “What I want to do is get all these great ideas together, get some innovative thinking and level set the playing field and to run these competing plans and to see which one really optimizes what we need for the future.”

Esper said DOD presently has four different plans for Navy shipbuilding: the FY-21 budget request, the future years defense program, the Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment and the 30-year shipbuilding plan.

Bipartisan opposition

Esper and Milley also heard concerns from lawmakers who oppose DOD’s decision to reprogram $3.8 billion from weapon systems to construction of a southern border wall, while simultaneously submitting $18 billion in unfunded priorities.

“This is an enormous problem,” said Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA). “The message it sends is the Pentagon has got plenty of money.”

Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said he opposed the reprogramming on constitutional grounds, though he supports the building of a border wall.

“This is not taking excess funds, this is substituting the judgment of the department . . . of the administration . . . for the judgement of Congress by reducing specific weapon systems that have been authorized and appropriated,” he said. “This is a deeper issue than the wall. . . . I am deeply concerned about where we’re headed with the constitutional issue.”

Esper said reprogramming the funds was necessary because of Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the border.

Milley noted the wall reprogramming is half of 1% of the overall DOD budget.

“So, I can’t in conscience say . . . the sky is falling,” he said. “What I said was that this reprogramming at $3.8 billion was not a significant, immediate, strategic, negative impact to the overall defense of the United States of America. Those were precisely selected words.”

But lawmakers warned Esper and Milley that DOD’s future reprogramming authority may be restricted as a result.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) said she is concerned DOD could become a “piggy bank” for future presidents who declare emergencies to fund “pet projects.”

“Today it could be the wall,” she said. “Tomorrow it could be someone’s decision to fund a healthcare project exclusively out of DOD’s budget.”

Nukes

Lawmakers said the Virginia-class program became a “bill payer” for a $2.5 billion increase to the National Nuclear Security Administration to build more nuclear weapons.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) said NNSA has $8 billion in unspent funds and questioned the decision to cut a submarine to provide NNSA more money.

“Is it your best military advice that cutting a Virginia-class submarine to increase the NNSA’s budget by 20% is good prioritization?” she asked Milley.

“No, it is not, ma’am,” Milley said, and acknowledged the decision was made elsewhere in the administration at a meeting he did not attend.

“I wasn’t personally involved in the decision on that,” he said. “That was a case where there was some internal deliberations at the last minute to make sure that the nuclear enterprise was fully funded.”

Still, Milley said, he fully supports funding nuclear modernization.

“The No. 1 priority of the United States, the budget, is to make sure that we have a safe, secure guaranteed nuclear enterprise,” he said.

Smith, the committee chairman, said lawmakers would “fight” DOD’s decision to take funds from submarines for NNSA.

“There is, however, $8 billion in what they artfully referred to as ‘on costed balances,’ currently within the NNSA for programs authorized and appropriated for over the years that we have not spent as planned,” he said. “I question the wisdom of grabbing $2.5 billion to add to that just to make us feel like we are doing more” in nuclear modernization.