Esper Presses Congress to Bulk Up Next Military Budget

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper addresses the National Defense Strategy
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper addresses the National Defense Strategy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., Feb. 6, 2020. (DoD photo/David Vergun)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper called on Congress Thursday to come to the rescue with more funding for the military to confront China and Russia and make up for a flatlined 2021 defense budget.

"In the years ahead, we need to get back to 3 to 5% real growth annually," Esper said. But in the meantime, "we have to brace ourselves that at best, defense spending will be level."

The next defense budget request is expected to include a nominal increase of $2 billion for a total of $740 billion, which still amounts to a modern record for military spending. The request is supposed to be sent to Congress on Monday.

"We're going to need more support" from Congress in the out years to "realign our missions and operations around the world," Esper said in an address at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In a memo Esper circulated earlier this week, he also said the budget for fiscal 2021 would feature "robust" pay and benefits for the troops. But defense officials declined to say another military pay raise is included in the package.

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Esper said his main goal is the "irreversible implementation" of the National Defense Strategy outlined by Mattis in 2018. The NDS emphasizes deterring Russia and China and prioritizes advances in artificial intelligence, 5G technology, hypersonic weapons and "putting the warfighter in the Cloud" for data storage and computing power.

The effort will translate into more cutbacks for so-called legacy weapons systems that "don't meet NDS requirements," Esper said.

He said the emphasis on NDS did not mean that counterterror missions or threats posed by Iran and North Korea would be ignored.

But, he added, "if we keep focusing on the near term, we lose focus on the long term."

China, in particular, has boosted its worldwide influence and sought to dominate nations on its periphery through its "Belt and Road Initiative" economic policies, Esper said.

"The Chinese have used at least the last 18 years while we were in Iraq and Afghanistan to make enormous strides with regard to the professionalization of their force, modernizing their doctrine, building new capabilities, going after us asymmetrically," Esper said.

The essentially flatlined defense budget has already prompted jockeying among the service branches for bigger shares of the spending that will be authorized.

"We need more money," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said last month, spurring complaints from Army and Air Force leaders that their services weren't getting their fair share.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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