Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas flickr user CSIS

How Will the Ukraine Crisis Affect the Defense Budget?

GOP lawmaker says a Pentagon budget hike is needed, Democrat calls for a broader review of spending priorities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing push into Ukraine represents a “startling brazenness not seen in history,” a top House defense thinker said on Monday. “It means we need to expand the range of military options for which we have to be prepared,” according to Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, a member of the Armed Service Committee.

On a recent trip to Asia just ahead of President Obama, “I heard that China is a rising power and the U.S. is a declining one, which doesn’t mean conflict is inevitable, only that there’s the potential for increasing complexity,” Thornberry told a Brookings Institution panel on the future of defense spending.

The House Republican leadership, Thornberry said, agrees with Obama’s stand on the need to abide by treaty commitments and seek a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. “But our allies need for us to be a reliable friend, so we must plan for a range of options,” he added. “Slowly ratcheting up sanctions as in Ukraine seems not to be effective.”

What is needed is a hike in defense spending because “what Russia and China and others respect is strength, the number of ships, and no other language,” he added. “There’s no magic number of 3 percent or 5 percent that means we’re safe,” Thornberry said. “But the world is watching what we do, and even though we thought the Cold war was over, what Russia is doing now is a big deal.”

His Democratic counterpart, Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington, said Obama’s recent trip to Asia to rebalance the U.S. posture there was “largely successful, a work in progress that’s progressing.” The defense debate must be broad and include discussion of health care, trade, diplomacy and economic growth, he said. “Today’s budget gives me very little hope Congress will re-address the sequester, cuts from which still loom from 2016 on," Larsen noted. “ I see myself taking a vote some late night in the future, and nothing focuses the mind like a man about to be hanged. But when we deal with the sequester, we can’t just deal with discretionary or defense spending but must address 100 percent of the budget.”

Larsen said the sanctions, which the United States expanded on Monday to target friends of Putin—as well as the recent deployment of U.S. troops to the Baltic states—are a “huge penalty on Putin.” But the Russian president “has no concern about what our defense budget will look like two to three years from now; he is concerned with how we use it today,” Larsen added.

The defense budget’s main problem, Larsen said, is that “while we are investing in the military, we are also investing in military things that are no longer useful or effective, because Congress and the services’ bureaucracies want to hold onto them. It’s not to say that a bigger budget is a better budget,” Larsen added, warning that many U.S. allies (unlike Russia and China) are out-investing the United States in education, medicine and transportation. Larsen also implored the Pentagon to get a handle on its ongoing auditing problems.

The auditing issue, agreed Thornberry, concerns all in Congress who are frustrated that the Pentagon can’t “show how much ammunition has been wasted because we can’t keep track of where we got it.”

Another key tool in the spending debate, Thornberry added, is Pentagon acquisition reform, a project that House leaders recently tasked him with leading. “Acquisition people ask me why I think reform might work this time,” Thornberry said, “and I tell them it’s bipartisan, bicameral, and bi-whatever you say to mean you’re working with the Pentagon,” led by Frank Kendall, undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“All agree that  our systems cost more but also that acquisitions are too slow,” Thornberry said. “China can build a ship in 36 months -- we’re not in the ballpark.” The answer won’t be a 2,000-page bill, he added, but perhaps a central acquisition authority, pilot programs, and stronger oversight working with the department on regulations. “We have to look deeper and change the incentives.”

Still, taming the acquisition process “won’t be enough” to confront the rising defense spending by Russia and China as well as the “tremendous number of threats” coming from al Qaeda and the competition in space-based weapons, Thornberry said. “You’d have to do a lot of acquisition reform to get a new aircraft carrier. There aren’t enough resources under any scenario. We need to do both.”

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