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A top general calls for restraining the defense budget

Gen. John Hyten says Congress can help by eliminating out-of-date weapons programs and enacting the Pentagon budget on time

Air Force Gen. John Hyten listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 11, 2019.
Air Force Gen. John Hyten listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 11, 2019. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

America’s defense budget needs to keep growing only if Washington continues to spend inefficiently, America’s second-ranking military officer said Monday. 

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Brookings Institution virtual conference that defense hawks’ goal of increasing military spending by 3-5 percent per year is only necessary if the government continues to build and operate unneeded weaponry and to pay many contractors for weeks, if not months, every year even as they are often unable to perform certain tasks because appropriations have not arrived.

“Do you think any taxpayer in this country would believe that for $700 billion a year, we can’t have a great defense?” Hyten said. “We should be able to, and it’s crazy that we can’t.” 

Hyten cited two inefficiencies that would need to change to avoid a ballooning defense budget. 

First, he said, old or new weapons that do not address current and emerging threats must be set aside. Second, Washington needs to enact budgets on time each fiscal year, rather than passing continuing resolutions that do not permit new programs to start or existing programs to expand their work. 

Hyten said the Pentagon pays a “marching army” of contractors for many weeks at the start of each fiscal year, even though their companies are not, in many cases, producing weapons and other assets that the military wants in those weeks.

Hyten suggested that the inefficiencies created by continuing resolutions waste at least 5 percent of the budget — the defense hawks’ preferred amount of annual spending increase.

It is not clear what research may back up that claim. RAND Corporation researchers reported in 2019 that they had difficulty quantifying the fiscal effect of CRs.

And a Government Accountability Office report made public Monday said the Pentagon has slowed its spending at the beginning of the fiscal year under CRs to minimize their effects.

In any event, Hyten’s comments could be construed as undercutting the hawks’ argument that 3-5 percent growth in the defense budget is needed to execute the national defense strategy. Hyten said that kind of annual raise is only required if “we continue to do business as a nation the way we’ve been doing business.” 

He then made clear that, in his view, “We have to start doing business differently.” 

Defense legislation

Hyten did not mention Congress or its work, but he obliquely cited two phenomena that are driven by lawmakers.   

The first is the tendency to pass legislation that forbids the Pentagon from retiring aging and unneeded assets such as aircraft and ships or, in a related habit, requiring the military to buy weapons that the brass did not ask for.

The second is Congress’s now habitual failure to pass spending bills by the Oct. 1 start of each fiscal year. This trend has required Congress to repeatedly clear continuing resolutions that allow the government to keep spending money but only on the same initiatives as in the last fiscal year and at the same level of outlays (except where anomalies are expressly permitted in the continuing resolution itself).

“If we could just get that stability, and if we could make sure we focus our investments on what’s required for the threat, only then we can actually do it with $700 billion a year,” he said. “But if we continue the same way we are, we have to have bigger budgets.”

For the record, the president’s fiscal 2022 national defense budget request, which covers the Pentagon and other agencies, is about $753 billion, which would be a tiny decrease in the total budget after inflation is considered. About $716 billion of that total is for the Pentagon. 

By comparison, the House and Senate defense authorization bills would endorse upping that figure to about $778 billion, enough to increase the total amount by about 5 percent — or approximately 3 percent after projected inflation is reckoned. hyte

Congress still needs to clear the appropriations bills that provide the budget authority itself. It is widely expected that they will first have to clear at least one continuing resolution later this year while negotiations continue — perhaps even beyond New Year’s Day — on fiscal 2022 spending bills.

The Defense Department has operated under a continuing resolution at the start of 11 of the last 12 fiscal years.

Threats foreseen

Hyten also offered several intriguing comments on threats facing the United States. 

The general, who has served in uniform for four decades, emphasized that America’s nuclear command and control systems need to stay protected against adversary attempts to degrade U.S. military commanders’ ability to “communicate and survive” in a crisis.

The general said that when he led U.S. Strategic Command from 2016 to 2019, just before taking his current position, the survivability of those information systems was assured — but he said he is worried about the near future.  

“Now I see China building new capabilities to deny that,” he said, without elaborating. 

Moreover, he said, copper cables that provide the underground nervous system for ground-based U.S. nuclear missiles across thousands of miles in the upper Midwest will need to be replaced and digitized in a decade or so, he said.

When that happens, he said, the nuclear networks will be connected to other kinds of information systems that he said might be vulnerable to exploitation by adversaries. The transition to this digital system could create new risks if not properly handled, he warned.

Hyten also bemoaned China’s expansion of its nuclear missile arsenal, including this year’s revelation that Beijing is building an estimated 250 new missile silos — about 10 times the current number, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

This construction suggests China could grow its nuclear warhead inventories from the current number of the “low 200s,” according to the Pentagon, to about four times that amount, the experts say.

However, China’s arsenal would still be dwarfed by the U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nearly 4,000 each.

Hyten expressed concern about both the rate and scale of the Chinese missile buildup.

He said the United States is developing and building a fleet of 400 new ground-based nuclear missiles over a roughly 15-year span. But China, he said, “is basically building about as many overnight.” 

Hyten also stressed the importance of developing non-nuclear ways to “hold any target on the planet at risk — anytime, anywhere.”

He was referring to a category of weapons, including developmental hypersonic missiles, known as “conventional prompt strike.”

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