US acting defense chief grilled over proposed budget
U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was grilled last week by senators over a request by the Department of Defense (DoD) to Congress for a sharp increase in funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).
The DoD's request is $100 billion or 140 percent more than its OCO request in 2019.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist were also present at the Fiscal Year 2020 Defense Budget Request session held at the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton questioned the "very large request" in the budget for OCO funds and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also running for president in 2020, slammed the administration's use of OCO for reasons "that have nothing to do with the establishment of OCO in 2009 by [former President] Barack Obama".
Warren said the last time the military requested such an increase was in 2010, when there were around 200,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, compared to the current 21,000 troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined.
All three defense officials said the OCO funds are based on military requirements, without getting into detail or providing a comprehensive explanation.
Turkey has also voiced concerns about alleged U.S. plans to allocate $300 million in the 2020 budget for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, which is predominantly composed of members of the PKK/YPG terror group.
The two-and-a-half-hour session shed light on the U.S. military plans underway and related spending.
Dunford said they are "cautiously optimistic" about Afghanistan after Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's completion of the first round of talks with the Taliban.
"For the first time, serious inroads were made into the reconciliation," said Dunford, adding they will continue to support Khalilzad's efforts.
"On the ground [in Afghanistan], by and large, the general strategic situation has not changed," said Dunford.
He said the pressure they have built on the Taliban's leadership has pushed them to the negotiating table for the first time since the war began.
Dunford added that the U.S. must continue providing combat enabling capability to Afghan security forces in the form of "train, assist, advise" as well as aviation, logistics and intelligence support to achieve real progress with the peace process.
He said the most important reason for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and South Asia is to prevent attacks against the American people.
- Notes from the session
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal praised the Trump administration's decision to invest in underwater warfare by building three Virginia-class attack submarines in 2020, an area he believed the U.S. "has an asymmetric advantage".
Answering a question from Republican Senator David Perdue about the presence of 5,000 American troops in Iraq at a time when the Iraqi Parliament is bracing for a vote to ask U.S. troops to leave the country, Dunford said the 2020 budget includes "an enduring presence in Iraq slightly less than the forces that are on the ground right now".
Dunford added that they are in partnership with the Iraqi government until a lasting defeat of Daesh by Iraqi security forces is achieved.
- Space Force
Shanahan said the existing space technologies of the "$19 trillion U.S. economy" are not resilient enough to cope with the threats and challenges of today and that new "capability" has to be designed and put in orbit as soon as possible.
He elaborated on the three steps the U.S. is planning to take in a bid to strengthen its capabilities in space.
Shanahan said that, first, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) recommends the creation of a Space Development Agency which will "cut the red tape" and "tap into the commercial space technology".
He said the second step is to set up a space command "just like we did with the Cyber Command" and the third is to provide space professionals with the right training to turn space jobs into careers.
In response to a question on whether Space Forces could be the sixth branch of U.S. Armed Forces along with the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy, Shanahan ruled out the option because of the "bureaucracy" it would create.
The Pentagon is requesting $14.1 billion for space, $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons technology and $9.6 billion for cyber.
Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth outlined a "shift in U.S. national defense strategy from countering violent extremism to great power competition".
- Sexual assaults in the army
Republican Senator Martha McSally recalled that in 2017, there were 6,769 sexual assaults reported across the U.S. military and thousands of others that were not reported.
McSally demanded a commitment from Shanahan and Dunford and proposed forming a team of experts to get to the bottom of that issue. Both Shanahan and Dunford agreed to cooperate.
Speaking about nuclear modernization projects, Shanahan said the U.S. "should not unilaterally disarm" at a time when its competitors are building up their nuclear capabilities.
In response to a comment criticizing the physical condition of family housing for service members of the U.S. Army, Shanahan said it is an "embarrassment".
Shanahan dodged questions from Democratic senators about a border wall proposed by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump as well as allegations that Boeing MAX 737 planes are not safe to fly after an accident in Ethiopia killed 356 people in the capital, Addis Ababa.
He said they should let regulators do their job on the Boeing issue.
The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the final say on budgetary matters.