For the first time in more than eight years, the House Appropriations committee shuttered its doors when it discussed budget issues with top Pentagon brass late last month.
And the potential reason for the closed doors might be alarming to all who have presumed American military dominance as a foregone conclusion. In the minds of the country’s top Defense officials, we’re no longer ready.
The Department of Defense (DoD) conferred with the Senate Armed Services Committee a day after its closed budget hearing. The tone at the Senate hearing was ominous, and the discussions foreboding.
“The competitive military advantage we enjoy today is the result of capabilities developed by our Services in an era of unchallenged technological dominance. That era has now passed,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his opening statement. “Seventeen years of combat and seven years of budget instability have forced us to postpone modernization investments for the sake of near-term readiness. Meanwhile, our adversaries’ investments in modernization have outpaced our own.”
It’s not the first year that Dunford and Defense Secretary James Mattis have discussed the effects that budget sequestration in 2013 have had on U.S. ability to project power, and again this year both men espoused the need to replenish a depleted force.
“What has happened over time is [our] competitive advantage has eroded,” Dunford continued. “I think it adversely affects the relationship we have with allies and partners. It adversely effects the deterrents against our potential adversaries, and clearly it would affect our ability to respond when deterrents fail.”
To restore that competitive advantage, Secretary Mattis hammered the point of ramping up investment in emerging technologies.
“We have future capabilities we must develop now, if we’re going to carry out our responsibilities,” he said. “The dangers we can see growing, and I think we’re going to have to maintain ourselves at the cutting edge of technology, organization, and combat lethality.”
The FY 2019 budget request includes $13.7 billion for science and technology, which Mattis says will focus “on innovation to advance DoD’s military dominance for the 21st century.” It’s a figure that will definitely come to bear with DoD planning to establish an AI Center to organize its 600 disparate AI projects but it is still only a tiny fraction of the $686 billion budget request.
Mattis said Congress’ decision to split his Undersecretary of Defense into two positions–Acquisitions and Sustainment; and Research and Engineering–will help foster innovation. Michael Griffin, Undersecretary of Research and Engineering, is effectively Defense CTO, and is helping to lead the charge on AI.
The budget request also provides $8.6 billion to build and maintain offensive and defensive capabilities for cyberspace operations.
Among the myriad budget topics, the $10 billion cloud contract again appeared on the frontlines in three hours of Senate committee discussions. Lawmakers were less keen to press the issue of a sole-sourced contract. Mattis noted it as just another example of the need for “the best possible service for the frontline.”
Dunford said the military is on a recovery path after two years of bountiful budgets in FY2017 and FY2018. Strengthening cyber research and development appears fully entrenched in the nation’s strategy, but the road to restoring American dominance, in the general’s eyes, is not yet fully paved.
“The challenges we have now took us 10 or 15 years to develop,” Dunford said. “It’s going to take us more than two or three years to recover.”