During 16 years of war, no enemy ambush or roadside bomb has more gravely injured the U.S. military than the law that has since 2011 threatened to slash its budget, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on June 12.

“For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration,” Mattis said. He and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford testified June 12 before HASC during a rare nighttime hearing on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2018 budget request.

The pair reiterated those statements to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on June 13.

Dunford said the $639 billion fiscal year 2018 budget request will cover current operations while rebuilding readiness. However sequestration threatens the military’s ability to carry out its global mission.

In his written statement, Dunford predicted that within five years “we will lose our ability to project power; the basis of how we defend the homeland, advance U.S. interests, and meet our alliance commitments.” Without an end to sequestration and sustained, predictable funding, Dunford told the committee the military’s structure and capacity or both are at risk.

“We’ll have some tough choices to make,” Dunford said. “It’s either going to be a significantly smaller military incapable of meeting the strategy or we’ll train to maintain capacity, in which case it will be the hollow force that I joined in the late 1970s.”

“In any case, it’s not what that United States of America needs to defense itself,” Dunford added.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks with U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., May 29, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks with U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., May 29, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

The two most-senior military officials are on Capitol Hill four times this week to urge passage of the Trump Administration’s first Defense budget, which came in at $639 billion. Of that, $574.5 billion is the base budget request. Another $64.6 billion goes to funding wartime operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Mattis chided Congress for failing to pass a budget on time in past years and its reliance on continuing resolutions on 30 occasions during nine of the past 10 years and puts blame for the budget uncertainty and its consequences squarely on Congress.

“By failing to pass a budget on time or eliminate the threat of sequestration, Congress sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role,” Mattis said. “It has blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative, and placed troops at greater risk. Despite the tremendous efforts of this committee, Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.”

Mattis and Dunford also pushed for elimination of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) that sets a cap on military spending. The administration’s fiscal 2018 request is $52 billion more than the cap set for the upcoming fiscal year.

Dunford denounced the BCA caps and repeated budget can-kicking by Congress through continuing resolutions. A year-long CR instead of a fiscal 2018 budget would cost $33 billion, he said.

“If these trends continue, and the constraints of sequestration are not lifted, the Department will have to cut force structure, as the tradeoffs required to maintain the capability and capacity of the current force are no longer sustainable,” Dunford said. “Going forward, the Department of Defense requires sustained, sufficient, and predictable funding to meet current operational requirements, restore readiness shortfalls, and place us on a path toward restoring our eroded competitive advantage.”

SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), repeatedly pointed out at the June 13 hearing that if the budget request already violates BCA limits then the Defense Department should request more than a 3 percent increase over the last Obama Administration budget.

“If we’re gonna bust the BCA, why not bust it to what we need it to be?” McCain said.

Mattis said the fiscal year 2018 budget is well-tuned to what the department needs and he was at the Senate hearing to defend the priorities they listed. If Congress wants to allocate additional funding, the department would be happy with items along the lines of the unfunded priorities lists, he added.

However, Mattis noted no single year funding is enough to get the department out of the budgetary hole they’re in. Adding $30 billion in FY 2018 is just the start, while a defense strategy and review they are working on will likely ask for three to five percent growth from fiscal years 2019-23.

Dunford noted three percent should be the floor necessary to preserve the military’s competitive advantage

While it has scrounged for funding to keep pace with inflation, Mattis said U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for the longest period of sustained armed conflict in American history. That has taken an expensive toll in blood and treasure on military personnel and their equipment, he said.

“Congress and the Department could not anticipate the accumulated wear and tear of years of continuous combat use,” Mattis said. “We have had to procure replacement gear and spend more money to keep gear serviceable and extend its service life. Due to this extensive use of our equipment across the force, operations and maintenance costs have also increased, rising faster than the rate of inflation during the past 16 years.”

Mattis said the 2018 budget is the second step in a three-step ladder to regain military readiness. The first was the $21 billion in extra funding granted in the final fiscal 2017 defense authorization legislation. That sum will go toward immediate combat needs. Fiscal 2018 builds on that by increasing modernization momentum and providing more end-strength. Fiscal 2019 is the third step and will involve another topline increase to address modernization and investment needs, Mattis said.

Continuing resolutions have hampered new-start programs because they cannot launch without a funding increase. Mattis called for significant investment in technologies needed to fight and win future wars, including developments in advanced computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, miniaturization, additive manufacturing, meta-materials, directed energy, and hypersonic flight.

McCain asked about the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy, which was promised within 30 days of Inauguration Day. Six months later, no such strategy has materialized. He said increased funding should be tied to new strategies aimed at breaking the stalemate of the 16-year-old conflict.

“We need a strategy, I don’t think that’s a hell of a lot to ask,” McCain said.

Asked whether the U.S.-led coalition was winning that war, Mattis admitted “we are not winning in Afghanistan right now” but said “we will correct this as soon as possible.”

Mattis said he expects to present the committee with an official Afghanistan strategy by mid-July.

Mattis pleaded with Congress for authorization to launch a round of base realignment and closure, which could save $2 billion annually but is politically unpopular because bases represent jobs in lawmakers’ home states and districts. The amount saved each year by closing and divesting excess infrastructure could cover 300 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, 120 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet jets or four Virginia-class submarines, Mattis pointed out.

“I urge Congress to support the Department’s request for authority to conduct a 2021 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, a cornerstone of our efficiencies program,” Mattis said. “The Department currently has more infrastructure capacity than required for operations – and foreseeable growth scenarios won’t appreciably change this. I recognize the severity of BRAC’s impact on communities and the careful consideration that members must exercise in considering it. In order to ensure we do not waste taxpayer dollars I would therefore greatly appreciate Congress’ willingness to discuss BRAC authorization as an efficiency measure.”

Dunford did not mention BRAC in his statement, but called for investment in fiscal 2019 and beyond in advanced military technologies and weaponry to combat future peer adversaries.

“As we have prioritized readiness for ongoing operations, our adversaries have prioritized investment in technologies that exploit our vulnerabilities and limit our ability to project power,” Dunford said. “To ensure our competitive advantage, we must accelerate investments in systems that defeat adversary anti-access capabilities at sea and under the sea, improve our ISR resiliency, 11 guarantee access to space and cyber, and enable us to defeat integrated air defenses. These advanced capabilities are vital to maintaining the U.S. military’s competitive advantage in all environments and across all domains.”