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Pentagon mulling request for additional COVID-19 funds

Defense secretary didn't discuss specifics, but amount could be in the billions

Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the Pentagon will ask Congress for more money to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the Pentagon will ask Congress for more money to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Pentagon expects to request new funding in the next COVID-19 recovery bill for medical supplies and economic relief for defense contractors, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Monday.

“We anticipate the likely need for additional monies coming out if there is a fourth supplemental,” Esper said during a teleconference hosted by the Brookings Institution.

The Defense Department has already been using the $11 billion it received from an earlier recovery bill to provide financial incentives to companies to produce protective gear and testing equipment under the Defense Production Act, he said.

The Pentagon has already committed to pushing $3 billion to defense contractors by increasing the amount the department reimburses firms for expenses incurred during ongoing work.

“We want people at work,” Esper said, referring to the defense industry. “We want to continue with payments, we want to help with cash flow. DOD is not an island, we really rely heavily on the private sector.”

Esper did not specify how much the Pentagon would request in a future recovery package, but defense officials have said they need “billions and billions.”

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., opposes giving the Pentagon more COVID-19 relief funds, suggesting the department may be able to find the money within its current budget.

Speaking more generally about the department’s funds, Esper repeated the need for 3 percent to 5 percent annual growth above inflation for the Pentagon’s budget.

“I am concerned of course that the massive infusion of dollars into the economy by the Congress and the executive branch may throw us off that course,” he said, referring to the virus relief packages.

This year’s national security budget totals $738 billion, with the Pentagon receiving the lion’s share. In documents accompanying the Defense Department’s fiscal 2021 request, the Pentagon projected little real growth in its budget over the next several years.

“We do need that sustained topline growth, and if we don’t [get it], we’re just going to have to accelerate the shedding of the legacy force and turning those dollars back into building the force we need in the future,” he said.

That translates into retiring older tanks, ships and planes sooner than planned and spending heavily on more modern replacements. In the coming decade, the Defense Department wants to replace all three legs of its nuclear triad: ground based missiles, ballistic submarines, and long-range bombers.

Esper said he also is exploring creating a more dynamic force that responds to changing circumstances rather than the military’s more rigid, permanent basing plan.

“I want to move much more toward operational deployments as compared to permanently deployed forward forces,” he said.

Esper did not go into detail about where he might scale back forward deployed forces, but it raises the possibility of troop cuts in places such as South Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq, and less high-profile activities by special forces in Africa.

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