JUST IN: Congress Facing Tough Decisions on Defense Programs and Spending

By Sean Carberry
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I

Defense Dept. photo

Every year, the Defense Department and Congress make tradeoffs — deciding what systems can be mothballed so new ones can be procured or slowing the acquisition of a system to fund research in another. But with the ongoing war in Ukraine, increasing Chinese assertiveness and pressure to rein in spending, Congress is going to face difficult choices this year, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Feb. 7.

Technology is rapidly advancing, battlefield techniques are changing and past assumptions about weapons and ammunitions needs are proving incorrect, which requires investing in modernization, said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., during a conversation with reporters.

“It is a constant tradeoff by both the military and by Congress, frankly,” he said. “We have legacy systems that are critical; they have to be maintained. And then we want new systems to come in.”

That requires striking a balance, he added. “First is driven by operational objectives — what's the most important thing? And then second, with respect to the newer equipment, it’s driven by the science and also the difficulties of producing breakthrough equipment and novel equipment … and so there are tensions on that side, too.

“We have to get equipment that is capable of operating effectively,” he said. “We have to stay ahead of the competition in this regard. That requires research investment and also requires developing production operations and techniques to get the equipment out the door in time.”

The war in Ukraine has exposed the limitations of the defense base, he added. “We've seen, particularly with Ukraine, the fact that our previous planning didn't really anticipate massive artillery duels, the actions we're seeing in Ukraine.

“And we operated from a position of thinking that our industrial base was rather complete, and the fact that we had sufficient resources we thought for the near future battle, a near-peer battle, etc. We have to look at that again,” he added.

In addition to ramping up production of munitions to meet the demand in Ukraine and stock up for a potential conflict with China, the United States needs to address serious problems with the naval industrial base, he said.

“I think what we have to do is step back and look at our whole Navy repair base — the shipyards to dry docks, etc. I don't think we have sufficient capacity,” he said. Solving it will require “a combined effort between our private companies and our public yards.”

For example, shipyards are not meeting construction needs for submarines, but there is excess capacity in other areas. There are also ships that are ready to be launched and haven’t been, and others that need to be decommissioned, he said. The armed services committees will focus on getting naval resourcing right this year, he added.

“How do we use existing facilities? How do we expand facilities that need expansion? What's the excess capacity in the shipyard business — in both the government shipyards and private shipyards? And we have to start being better at maximizing our access to repairs and overhauls,” he said.

“We can be criticized too frankly, for not doing enough over the last several years to give them the tools,” he said, noting the disagreement over decommissioning eight littoral combat ships — one of the most fraught and controversial platforms in the service. The Senate agreed to divest four, but the House cut that back to two. Hence, the Navy will need to expend resources on ships it doesn’t want at the expense of building new systems.

“I think the Congress grasps the importance of the Navy, particularly in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “And in fact, one of the great and most decisive aspects of our naval presence in the Pacific is a submarine — our attack submarines move everywhere,” he added.

“I think they are the most significant deterrent we have, and those attacks submarines are constantly being improved. And we are investing a great deal of money not only in our Virginia-class attack submarines, but also in the new Columbia,” he said.

However, that is proving a challenge as shipyards are falling behind schedule as they try to produce two classes of submarines at once, he noted.

“And whenever they get into a first class of anything, there are unanticipated problems,” he said. “And there's a tendency to move resources away. And if that tendency is there, then we've got a situation where Virginia might slow down a bit.”

Regarding Ukraine, Reed said that what’s taking place on the battlefield is leading to some rethinking of U.S. approaches to technology and warfare. The services are revisiting their requirements based on Ukraine.

“I think the most adaptable is the field of electronic warfare,” he said. The Ukrainians have been “doing some ingenious things, because desperate times required desperate means.”

There is also rapid modification or updating of software on the battlefield, he said.

“So that someone, anyone with a phone, can report the location of a tank, it goes in, it's analyzed quickly with the AI and then sent to a shooter,” he said.

“That's the type of information and type of technique that we have to start evolving,” he said, adding that the Marine Corps and Army are experimenting with some of these techniques.

“So, I sense this is taking place and we want to encourage it in the Congress,” he said. “Again, the people who fight the last war usually end up losing it. And we don't want to do that.”

However, that largely hinges on what Congress decides about allocating resources in the 2024 budget. House Freedom Caucus members have been calling for cuts to defense spending, floating the idea of capping defense spending at level enacted in fiscal year 2022.

“It would roughly be I think a $78 billion cut on defense at the time we're in the midst of supporting active conflict,” he said. Plus, with China’s increasingly provocative behavior, “I don't think that would be appropriate number. And I don't think we have a lot of bipartisan support here in the Senate,” he added.

President Joe Biden’s budget request is due in March, and Reed said that Congress will “take his budget as we did last year and see where we need to respond to threats and to accelerate modernization and do a host of other things.”

He noted there has been a tendency in recent years to add to the president’s request. “I think that pressure to go higher will be there. But we hope we can come up with something that reflects the needs, not just some arbitrary number that we pick out because it looks impressive.”

Congress will need to explore a range of options to cut to direct savings to new priorities. That could involve something like another round of base realignment and closure, or BRAC, he said.

“I think that's something that we should periodically look at. We've had infrastructure in place now for many years since the last BRAC and years before that,” he said. Congress needs to be “looking at systems that are no longer effective, looking at facilities that are no longer effective — all of that has to be done. I hope we can do it.”

Topics: Defense Department

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