Lawmakers show little agreement on the defense budget

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WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers indicated there is little agreement on President Donald Trump’s defense budget proposal — with space likely to be a casualty of the fallout.

Military space programs made out fairly well in the budget request the White House sent Congress late last month. Unclassified space spending — most of it managed by the U.S. Air Force — would total $7.75 billion in 2018, a roughly 25 percent increase over 2017 levels.

While most of the additional money would go towards the next-generation GPS system and an existing missile-warning program, the Air Force is also asking Congress to OK several new starts — something that won’t happen if the White House and Congress cannot agree to a budget.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, gave voice to what many in the aerospace and defense industry fear.

“If we don’t begin negotiating today, it’s very likely the military will once again begin the year on a continuing resolution,” he said, referring to stopgap spending measures that keep government agencies funded at current-year levels.

Trump’s budget request seeks a $52 billion increase in defense spending over the 2017 budget, but hasn’t found much support from members of Congress of either party. Some lawmakers are criticizing the proposed cuts to social services and education to pay for the increase, while others have said there’s not much point in boosting spending while sequestration rules are still in effect that mandate arbitrary across-the-board cuts to defense spending.

Both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford appeared before the House Armed Services Committee Monday night, and the Senate committee Tuesday morning, and at both appearances called upon lawmakers to end sequestration.

“No enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration,” Mattis said.

Space did not come up in the hearings, other than a standard mention as one of the domains the U.S. military must cover. However, if sequestration and a continuing resolution clamps down on new program starts, that could affect planned future national security space programs.

That would mean, for example, that the Air Force’s desire to lay the financial groundwork for a seventh and eighth satellite in its Space Based Infrared System missile-warning constellation would likely go unfunded.

Likewise, the service could conclude a year-long analysis of alternatives to buying additional Wideband Global Satcom satellites, only to find no money to fund a new  program of record.

A May 11 letter sent to Congress by the CEOs of Boeing, Raytheon, and the Aerospace Industries Association, said that the Budget Control Act — the legislation that made sequestration into law — poses “significant danger to our national security.”

It limits “industry’s ability to invest in innovation and technology for the future,” the letter said. “A stable, multi-year budget is needed to fund strategic requirements, current operations, and future modernization efforts.”

Mattis said in his testimony that lawmakers had met budget challenges with “lassitude not leadership.”

“Continuing resolutions coupled with sequestration blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative, and leaves troops at greater risk,” he said.

The comments prompted Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — who was not in Congress at the time of the original Budget Control Act vote — to make a strong rebuke of how lawmakers were handling the budget, noting that it is within Capitol Hill’s power to end sequestration.

“The Budget Control Act is not the Constitution,” Cotton said. “Let’s own up for our annual budgeting cycle.”

Several lawmakers, however, expressed concern that even with increased funding for the military, the Trump administration wouldn’t have a plan for continuing the fight against terrorism and competing with American near-peer adversaries.

“There’s no strategy here. It’s just ‘Congress do something,’” McCain said. “There are problems within this administration…I was confident within the first 30 to 60 days we would have a strategy.”

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the nation’s current defense strategy is “grand ideas of what we want, but we don’t know how to get there.”