Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Monday put bipartisan blame on Congress for failing to lift budget caps that he said had stifled efforts to rebuild the military and improve readiness.
Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford also suggested that they could soon present options to President Donald Trump to support the request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for at least 3,000 more troops to back the Afghan army against the Islamic State and a resurgent Taliban.
"We've listened very carefully to Gen. Nicholson's assessment," Dunford said. "We do have some things we're considering to turn around the trends."
Mattis added, "We'll take that forward to the president for a decision very soon."
The U.S. currently has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan and NATO and coalition allies have an additional 5,000. In February, Nicholson requested 3,000-5,000 more U.S. threats to counter the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
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In budget testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Mattis warned that the nation faces a broad spectrum of emerging threats "and yet, for four years our military has been subject to or threatened by automatic, across-the-board cuts as a result of sequester -- a mechanism meant to be so injurious to the military it would never go into effect."
Rather than rising to the occasion, "Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership," Mattis said in a rare rebuke by a cabinet member to his congressional overseers.
Mattis made his typically blunt remarks at an unusual nighttime committee hearing on the Trump administration's proposed fiscal 2018 defense budget request.
Mattis, joined at the hearing by Dunford and the Pentagon's new comptroller, David Norquist, has railed against sequestration before but had never previously put blame for its continuation so directly on Congress.
"I retired from military service three months after sequestration took effect" in 2013, he said of his stepping down as head of U.S. Central Command.
"Four years later, I returned to the department and I have been shocked by what I've seen with our readiness to fight," the defense secretary said. "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.
"We have only sustained our ability to meet America's commitments abroad because our troops have stoically shouldered a much greater burden," he said in calling on Congress to lift the budget caps and pass a new budget on time for the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
"Not long ago we convinced ourselves that when we pulled out of Iraq and ceased combat operations in Afghanistan, we would take two or three years to 'reset and reconstitute' the force," Mattis said. "Today's operations dictate the best we can do is 'reset and reconstitute in stride,' a reality that imposes its own stress on the force."
President Donald Trump proposed a national defense base budget of $603 billion -- $574.5 billion for the Department of Defense and $28.5 billion for Energy Department defense and nuclear programs. Mattis acknowledged that the request was $52 billion above the permitted cap under the Budget Control Act of 2011 of about $549 billion.
In addition, the Trump administration and the Pentagon have asked for $64.6 billion for the so-called "war budget," or overseas contingency operation, also known as OCO.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the HASC chairman, and other Republicans in the House and Senate have already staked out positions charging that the $603 billion baseline budget was not nearly enough to restore readiness.
Thornberry has called for a $37 billion increase in the baseline budget to $640 billion and he renewed the call in his questioning of Mattis at the hearing. He said the troops "deserve the best weapons and equipment we can provide," and "I'm afraid today they're not getting it."
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member on the panel, said that even if sequester were lifted, the money simply wasn't there long-term to fund the buildup Trump has called for, such as a 350-ship Navy and an expansion of Army strength to 570,000.
"We have a grand idea of what we want," Smith said. "We don't have the money to get there. Who's left in the lurch? Those who serve."
In his prepared testimony, Mattis identified North Korea as the most persistent and dangerous threat to peace, but also said that the coming years will be marked by a new era of "Great Power" competition.
He said that "a resurgent and more aggressive Russian Federation and a rising, more confident, and assertive China" would place "the international order under assault. In this competitive environment, the Department must pay much more attention to future readiness, and regaining our Joint Force conventional overmatch over time," Mattis said.
"We must be willing and able to tap into commercial research, recognize its military potential, and develop new capabilities and the operational and organizational constructs to employ them faster than our competitors."
To offset the costs of ballooning defense budgets, Mattis offered an option that is almost politically impossible to achieve -- another round of base closings.
"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," he said.
However, "I recognize the severity of BRAC's impact on communities and the careful consideration that members must exercise in considering it," Mattis said.
Without getting into numbers, Mattis also said that increased pay and benefits would also be part of a long-term effort to rebuild the military.
"Comprising roughly one-third of the Department of Defense budget, military pay and benefits are the single largest expense category for the Department," he said. "I believe providing competitive pay and benefits is a necessity to attract and retain the highly qualified people needed in today's military."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.