Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper will face a congressional gauntlet on Wednesday as he makes his first public defense of President Trump’s Pentagon budget request, likely to face questions on a range of hot-button issues from shipbuilding cuts and troop withdrawals in Africa and Afghanistan to the president’s decision — again — to tap the Pentagon’s budget to pay for his wall along the border with Mexico.
The $740.5 billion budget request — a roughly $2 billion increase from the 2020 budget — includes just over $705 billion dedicated to Defense Department programs and $35.1 billion intended for the Department of Energy and other agencies.
The essentially flat top line in the Pentagon budget led to “tough choices” in order to free up money to counter emerging rivals such as China and Russia, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist told reporters earlier this month. Mr. Esper will discuss the budget and other policy issues in a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Cuts to maintenance and modernization programs that have received backlash from lawmakers, most notably the Navy’s shipbuilding budget plan that calls for nearly $20 billion for eight ships — but not all of which can be used in combat.
“The initial budget will disrupt America’s shipbuilding industrial base, undercut the Navy’s force structure for years to come,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, Connecticut Democrat, in a statement Tuesday.
The Navy has repeatedly insisted that their requirement is 355 to maintain readiness, and the existing budget deviates from the 2020 authorization that approved funding for 12 new ships.
But Mr. Courtney, who chairs the panel’s sea power subcommittee, complained that “downgrading the administration’s shipbuilding budget further demonstrates the chaotic handling of this critical national security issue by the Office of Management and Budget.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, told reporters Monday that he too backs more money for shipbuilding “because the 355 figure that has been used is not working under the current budget.”
“I don’t think that anyone is satisfied with the progress we’re making toward what we ultimately wanted to achieve in the size of our ships and the number that we have,” he said.
Experts say the matter will be a top priority for many lawmakers regardless of their district’s reliance on the shipbuilding industry.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said in an interview that ship fleets are “one of the most visible, tangible ways to measure combat power.”
“Even members who don’t have shipbuilding in their districts, they can understand ship counting, and the importance and the need of having a global Navy global presence,” she said.
Mr. Esper’s appearance comes with a peace deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban hanging in the balance and questions hovering over the future of U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.
The House panel is expected to press the secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on global military issues, but Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there are “so many budget issues that they will want to discuss that I think a lot of these other policy issues will take a back seat.”
Lawmakers are expected to zero in on President Trump’s plans to redirect some $7.2 billion in Defense Department money earmarked for construction, health and other military programs for the border wall project, a shift that has angered lawmakers of both parties.
Mr. Esper has defended the reprogramming and said earlier this month, “The first priority of the [Defense Department] is protection of the homeland. The southwestern border is a security issue.”
But the House panel’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, has called the shift of appropriated funds “contrary to Congress’ constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action.”
Ms. Eaglen said, “Everybody got on board because they thought that was the end of it last year that it wasn’t going to be an issue this year, but then the president found a way to drive the wedge into the debate again this year, and it’s going to be another humungous issue. If it caused a shutdown last year, it in theory could cause a shut down this year.”
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