$700 BILLION FOR DEFENSE, NOT A PENNY YET FOR THE PENTAGON: The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act is heading to President Trump's desk, following a voice vote in the Senate yesterday. The $700 billion defense policy bill authorizes hikes in military hardware and troop levels well above Trump’s request, as well as a raft of reforms, and the president is itching to sign it into law. “We are massively increasing our military budget to historic levels,” Trump said Wednesday. “The House has just passed a nearly $700 billion defense package, and it could not come at a better time for our nation.”
A BIG BUT: It’s too soon to pop the champagne. The NDAA spending exceeds congressionally-imposed limits on defense spending, known as sequestration, for the coming year by about $85 billion. The bill authorizes $634.2 billion in base defense spending but cannot be fully funded unless Congress strikes a deal to lift a $549 billion cap for 2018. The sticking point, as it is every year, is Democrats’ insistence that any raise in defense spending is matched by increases in nondefense accounts. Time is running out as a the stopgap continuing resolution passed in September is set to expire Dec. 8 and there is no guarantee any final deal will fund all of the NDAA priorities. Without an appropriations measure that matches the authorization bill, the Pentagon can’t actually spend a penny of the new money.
Is the Pentagon worried? You bet it is. “The department has been operating for 1,060 days under a CR. … We need an FY '18 appropriations budget before December 8th,” said Dana White, chief Pentagon spokesperson, repeating talking points she’s rolled out in every briefing she’s given recently.
“If sequestration happens, it'll mean a $52 billion cut to the FY '18 budget. Again, it affects readiness, lethality,” White said. “And it also can affect our partnerships, because our partners plan out their budgets to work with us. And so, if we have to cut back on exercises, that -- that has impacts on interoperability and our ability to work together.”
‘ADVENTURE IN DEMOCRACY’: Speaking to reporters en route to Colorado for a tour of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday called the labyrinthine legislative process “an adventure in a democracy, where you have to align the legislative branch, the executive branch, you have to have a plan, you have to adapt to the future, same time you have to deal with current situations.” While there is no agreement about how to lift or repeal the spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, Mattis takes heart in the fact there is bipartisan support for fully funding the nation’s military in a time of increasing threats. “I will tell you that we have gotten bipartisan support for strengthening our military. It's not like I go into one party and have arguments about, ‘We don't need to do this,’ " Mattis said.
McCAIN’S ROLE: The passage of the NDAA is also a major achievement for Sen. John McCain, who shepherded the bill through the Senate and championed the cause of increased defense spending while battling an aggressive form of brain cancer. McCain arrived at yesterday’s Senate Armed Services committee hearing in a wheelchair after a week of wearing a walking boot due to a tear in his Achilles tendon, which his office said was a side effect of cancer therapy. Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell paid tribute to McCain after the NDAA passed on the chamber floor, saying it will “stand as yet another testament to the hard work, dedication, and unflappable determination of our colleague and friend Sen. John McCain — American hero.”
WATCHFUL WAITING ON KOREA: Mattis yesterday also refused to speculate as to what’s behind the two-month pause in provocative actions by North Korea, which has not conducted a missile test since Sept. 14. “We're watching it closely,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him yesterday. Pressed about whether the pause was at least encouraging, Mattis repeated, “We're watching it closely.” The big question: Is Pyongyang rethinking or reloading?
Mattis continues to underscore at every opportunity that diplomacy is the key to successful resolution of the North Korea situation and refused to be drawn into a discussion with reporters about whether North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is in fact deterrable. He did seem to outline the conditions for talks with Pyongyang. “There may be opportunity for talks, if they stop their shooting missiles, stop developing nukes, stop building more nukes, we can talk,” Mattis said.
AGREE TO DISAGREE: White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders acknowledged yesterday that what the president said Wednesday wasn’t exactly accurate. Trump said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to reject any deal that called for the U.S. to give up its military exercises in return for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program, a proposal known as "freeze-for-freeze" or "dual suspension."
But after a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called the dual suspension idea “the most feasible, fair and sensible plan in the present situation,” Sanders admitted the two countries do not see eye-to-eye on the way forward. "Yeah, both sides made their position clear," Sanders said. "They're different, but we agree that they're going to be different positions and therefore it's not going to move forward."
At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said the annual exercises remain crucial to keeping the military forces of the U.S. and its South Korean and Japanese allies in fighting shape. “For forward-deployed forces, exercises are a critical component of readiness. They do, in fact, assure our our partners,” McKenzie said at yesterday’s briefing. “They're not necessarily aimed at anyone. But they also, I think, exercise a powerful deterring effect by the fact that they're occurring.”
BREAKING: “Iraqi forces retake the country’s last IS-held town,” reports the AP, which quotes the Iraqi Defense Ministry as confirming that Rawah, 175 miles northwest of Baghdad, has now been largely cleared of Islamic State fighters. “At dawn, Iraqi military units and local tribal fighters pushed into the western neighborhoods of Rawah in western Anbar province and after just five hours of fighting they retook the town, according to Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool.” All that now remains of ISIS-held territory are small pockets of rural areas in the western desert along the border with Syria.
Good Friday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
HAPPENING TODAY: Lots of big names are taking part in the three-day Halifax National Security Forum, which begins today in Nova Scotia, and runs through Sunday. Among the speakers: Gen. John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command; Richard V. Spencer, secretary of the Navy; Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet; Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan; and Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO. Full agenda is here.
MATTIS IN SAN DIEGO: The defense secretary wraps up a short two-day domestic trip today in San Diego, where he attends a Marine Corps recruit graduation, and then speaks to the Navy Fleet Synchronization Conference. Mattis, a legendary Marine commander, calls the graduation ceremony a “rather intense socialization into the Marine Corps.”
“Big day for young people. And these are the young folks who look beyond political rhetoric or anything else. They come in, they volunteer, and they don't expect somebody else to do it. They come in and defend the country. In the information age, they know what they're getting into, they have no doubt what they're getting into. They've seen it on TV since they were little kids,” Mattis said.
NOMINEE GRILLED OVER LOCKHEED TIES: A Trump Pentagon nominee is getting added scrutiny by McCain and the Armed Services Committee after his ties to Lockheed Martin sparked questions over a conflict of interests. McCain warned former Lockheed vice president John Rood that his nomination could be in jeopardy unless he says whether he plans to play a role in the defense giant’s foreign military sales once confirmed as undersecretary for policy. “I hope we can clear that up. It is not difficult, you should not be making decisions that are relating to your previous employer or would affect the fortunes of one of them,” McCain said. “So I don’t like your answers, most of us don’t like your answers. We’ll be giving you written questions and I suggest that you answer them thoroughly and completely.”
Rood is barred from decisions involving the company for two years under an ethics agreement, but he refused to say whether he might seek ethics waivers allowing him to deal with Lockheed’s overseas weapons sales.
ON NOTICE, NO MORE INDUSTRY NOMINEES: McCain joined the committee hearing late, and so did not read his opening statement. But his staff provided it, and it included admonition to the administration to stop nominating former industry execs to fill top Pentagon jobs, where they will be doing business with their old firms. Directing his written comments to Rood, McCain said “I must reiterate my concerns about the number of nominees from defense industry filling out the leadership ranks at the Department of Defense. As I have said before, my reservations grew out of early consultations I had with the administration about a number of potential nominations. You are the last of the individuals we discussed at that time. Therefore, from this point forward, I will not support any further nominees with that background.”
BATCH OF CONFIRMATIONS: Just before leaving town for the Thanksgiving break, the Senate quickly confirmed eight nominees to the Pentagon. All were among the 14 total who were reported to the chamber floor by the Armed Services Committee following a flurry of activity over the past two weeks. Here is who made the cut:
- Joseph Kernan: undersecretary of defense for intelligence
- Guy Roberts: assistant secretary of defense
- Robert Wilkie: undersecretary for personnel and readiness
- Robert Behler: director of Operational Test and Evaluation
- Thomas Modly: undersecretary of the Navy
- James Geurts: assistant secretary of the Navy
- Robert McMahon: assistant secretary of defense
- Shon Manasco: assistant secretary of the Air Force
PLASMA BILL CLEARS CONGRESS: A Senate vote has sent a bill to Trump that would give Mattis power to fast-track approval of freeze-dried plasma and other potentially life-saving battlefield medical products that are yet unapproved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The bill, passed by voice vote in the House Wednesday, is a compromise reached by the Defense Department and FDA after a decade-long struggle over getting French freeze-dried plasma to troops threatened to hold up the National Defense Authorization Act.
THE PERRY-CARTWRIGHT COALITION: Former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Vice Joint Chiefs Chairman and U.S. Strategic Commander James Cartwright have emerged as the most consistent and forceful former national security officials arguing for a much smaller U.S. nuclear arsenal. The pair teams up again today in an op-ed in the Washington Post to arguing that if the Pentagon scaled back the $1.7 trillion plan to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad, the nation would actually be safer, while saving hundreds of billions of dollars.
“Certain nuclear weapons, such as the cruise missile and the ICBM, carry higher risks of accidental war that, fortunately, we no longer need to bear. We are safer without these expensive weapons, and it would be foolish to replace them. With nuclear weapons, as with all things, sometimes less is more,” Perry and Cartwright write.
BIG OOPS: The Pentagon is looking into how a Twitter post calling for Trump to resign was retweeted from the official Defense Department account on Thursday.
The official account, @deptofdefense, retweeted a post to its more than 5 million followers that was reacting to recent revelations about U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken and past sexual misconduct allegations against Trump.
"The solution is simple ... Roy Moore: Step down from the race. Al Franken: Resign from congress. Donald Trump: Resign from the presidency. GOP: Stop making sexual assault a partisan issue. It's a crime as is your hypocrisy."
Pentagon spokesman Tom Crosson called it an "errant tweet," noted it was immediately deleted upon discovery and said the matter is being looked into. "This is not something we would endorse,” Crosson said in what would qualify as a serious understatement.
LETHAL AID TO UKRAINE: Sen. Jim Inhofe, senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has sent a letter to Trump urging the U.S. to provide “lethal assistance” to Ukraine in order to counter Russian aggression. “The military land-grab Russia has launched in Ukraine is unprecedented in modern European history,” Inhofe writes. “Our response should include lethal military hardware as part of a broader effort to help Ukrainians defend themselves and deter future aggression.” Inhofe’s letter can be read here.
NO ARGUMENT WITH PUTIN: Trump does not think a war of words with Russian President Vladimir Putin would be productive, White House press secretary Sanders said yesterday. "He doesn't think that it's helpful for him to get into a back-and-forth argument with Vladimir Putin," Sanders told reporters at the White House. "But he does think there are places where we can work with Russia."
Trump took criticism last week after he emerged from a series of brief, informal conversations with Putin on the sidelines of a trade summit in Vietnam and said he believed Putin sincerely meant it when he said Russia did not meddle in the U.S. election.
KISLYAK’S LIST: Sergei Kislyak, former Russian ambassador to the U.S., said the list of Trump officials he met or spoke with is too long to get through. “First, I’m never going to do that,” he said in an interview with Russia-1, a state-owned Russian television channel, CNBC reported. “And second, the list is so long that I’m not going to be able to go through it in 20 minutes.”
The comment came following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, where he fielded questions about meeting with Kislyak in 2016 as an Alabama senator and a foreign policy adviser to Trump's campaign.
FOGGY HOLLOW: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans an “intentional hollowing-out” of State Department leadership, a group of House Democrats complained Thursday.
Rep. Eliot Engel led the Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats to demand a briefing on Tillerson’s plan to reorganize and cut State Department personnel, a long awaited plan that the former Exxon Mobil CEO has identified as one of his top priorities. Their letter to Tillerson builds on bipartisan Senate complaints that the reform process is behind schedule and out of touch with Congress.
“[W]e remain profoundly concerned about what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks and the entire State Department with no apparent goal,” the letter said.
Wall Street Journal: Pentagon Moves to Develop Banned Intermediate Missile
New York Times: Downing North Korean Missiles Is Hard. So the U.S. Is Experimenting
New York Times: The Uncounted
Washington Post: Coast Guard says it’s $900 million short after ‘all-hands-on-deck’ hurricane response
USNI News: Navy Accepts Delivery of Arleigh Burke Restart Destroyer Ralph Johnson
Defense One: A Fight Is Brewing Between Congress and the Military Over Cyber War
DoD Buzz: TransCom Faces Deployment Delays After Hurricane Season
Military Times: Surge in Afghanistan is underway; 14,000 US troops now in country
USA Today: Is it time for U.S. concessions to defuse North Korea crisis? China says yes.
Defense Tech: Migration, Drug Activity Spiked While Coast Guard Worked Hurricanes
Military.com: Lawmaker Undaunted After Provision to Change Navy's Name Cut from Bill
Foreign Policy: The Kurdish Explosion Is Unleashing Demons
Defense News: Congress signals focus of ballistic missile defense review in policy bill
Daily Beast: Russian General Denies He’s Behind the U.S. Election Plot
FRIDAY | NOV. 17
8 a.m. 201 Waterfront St. Logistics Officer Association Symposium 2017 with a keynote speech by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. logisticsymposium.org
8 a.m. 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW. U.S.-Finland Defense and Security Industry Seminar. ndia.org
3 p.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. A book talk with author Serhii Plokhy about “Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation.” csis.org
MONDAY | NOV. 20
12 p.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia's new zone of confrontation with Iran? hudson.org
TUESDAY | NOV. 21
2:30 p.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Kings and presidents: Whither the special relationship with Saudi Arabia? brookings.edu