Pentagon in open brawl over spending priorities

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is facing an open revolt in his own ranks.

A brawl has broken out at the top rungs of the Pentagon over how to prepare the military for long-term threats, in a rare public fight that pits leaders of the military branches against Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Carter wants to use the Pentagon’s upcoming, approximately $580 billion budget request to solidify the Obama administration’s goals of investing in more advanced weapons such as next-generation fighters and submarines, and high-demand skills such as cyber warfare.

But he is butting heads with the Navy’s leadership and facing open skepticism from the man in line to be Army secretary, who have disagreed with their boss in recent days over key aspects of the administration’s plans. One admiral even mocked critics of a warship program that Carter is trying to scale back.

Carter is getting pushback from multiple quarters.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus favors more spending on a small, close-to-shore warship that has faced criticism for its lack of firepower and that Carter wants to curtail. At the same time, President Barack Obama’s choice for Army secretary, Eric Fanning, expressed qualms last week about the administration’s plans to free up money for other priorities by shrinking the number of soldiers.

Fanning told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he worries about the impact of the administration’s proposal to shrink the active-duty Army by 40,000 soldiers, to 450,000. Those planned cuts are “preventing us from doing everything we want to do to the Army to … make it readier,” he said. “Two years ago when we targeted 450 [thousand], we didn’t have ISIL, we didn’t have Russia.”

The jousting over the budget has played out in public to an unusual degree. Carter, according to defense budget expert Mackenzie Eaglen, is “in a semi-open war” with the Navy’s Mabus in particular.

The resistance comes from powerful forces in the military, in the defense industry and on Capitol Hill that may see little to lose in bucking the Pentagon’s boss in the final year of the Obama administration.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told POLITICO that “budgets are ultimately about choices.”

“The budget the secretary will submit invests in the kinds of advanced capabilities our warfighters deserve and our nation needs,” Cook said. He said Carter “looks forward to making the case for this budget to members of Congress and to taxpayers across the country.”

Yet Mabus and other Navy leaders used an annual military symposium this month to offer a forceful defense of the littoral combat ship, the same warship that Carter wants to pare back to allow more spending on destroyers, munitions, submarine upgrades, and the F-35 and F-18 fighter jets.

Mabus was also unabashed about his emphasis on building up the overall number of ships — in sharp contrast to Carter, who has admonished the Navy secretary for making “quantity” a higher priority than “lethality.”

The Navy’s director of surface warfare, Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, even employed a mocking tone toward the littoral combat ship’s critics, while pleading for an audience full of industry executives to help him defend the program.

“Yes, there are still naysayers,” Fanta said at the symposium. “You know what a lot of those naysayers’ problems are? ‘You didn’t write the stack of reports that was required to build this ship.’ Aww.”

Carter set off the public battle over the LCS in a memo last month. In it, he scolded Mabus for submitting an “unbalanced” initial budget plan, and ordered him to cut planned purchases of littoral combat ships from 52 to 40. “These choices will create a Navy that is far better postured to deter and defeat advanced adversaries,” Carter wrote.

The LCS, built by contractors Lockheed Martin and Austal USA, is designed to provide “presence,” allowing the Navy to patrol coastal waters all over the world, but the ship has faced criticisms for its inability to survive certain combat situations.

“I have made clear in our discussions, in my budgetary guidance, and in public remarks that our military is first and foremost a warfighting force, and while we seek to deter wars, we must also be prepared to fight and win them,” Carter wrote in his memo. “This means that overall, the Navy’s strategic future requires focusing more on posture, not only on presence, and more on new capabilities, not only ship numbers.”

The debate is a crucial legacy-maker for Carter, who has marked just under a year as Obama’s fourth defense secretary and has one shot to put a defining stamp on how the Pentagon spends hundreds of billions of dollars. In the budget request for fiscal 2017, due out Feb. 9, he will attempt to make his vision a reality — the pinnacle of a three-decade career in national security that has included stints as the Pentagon’s deputy secretary and acquisitions chief.

Carter is essentially term-limited, expected to leave his post early next year when a new president installs a new defense secretary.

“It will be very easy for the [military] services and Congress to just push these things off for a year and wait for a new team to be in place,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As defense budget expert Gordon Adams put it: “It’s really hard for secretaries of defense to make a difference in one year.”

“He’s making what he believes are hard choices linked to a priority, and that’s going to make friends and enemies in Washington,” added Eaglen, a military specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The basic contours of Carter’s budget request are already known: It will seek about $583 billion for the Defense Department, including $524 billion in regular funding and an additional $59 billion in a supplemental account intended to pay for wars. These figures are in line with the two-year budget deal forged last year between Congress and the White House.

In an op-ed in Forbes, Eaglen said technologies that could get more funding include nuclear weapons modernization programs, such as the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement submarine and the Air Force’s Long Range Strike Bomber, along with artificial intelligence and other next-generation programs. These are part of what Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work calls the “third offset” — emerging technologies designed to ensure the United States retains its edge over near-peer rivals like China and Russia.

Harrison said the disputes are really a fight between the services and Carter over “capacity” versus “capability,” with the military branches wanting to expand what they already have and Carter wanting them to prepare for the future.

The leaders of the military branches, of course, aren’t the only powerful forces standing in Carter’s way.

Congress is bent on protecting key parochial interests — namely, defense contracts back home — and is deeply divided over defense strategy. And several powerful lawmakers are already threatening to block Carter’s cuts to the Littoral Combat Ship program.

Further complicating Carter’s plans is the administration’s inability to disentangle itself from wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, which are draining resources and focus from Carter’s longer-term vision for the military.

This gives the forces of bureaucratic inertia a distinct advantage over the Pentagon chief, who likely has a little more than a year left in office: These forces can wait him out.

Said Harrison: “It is difficult to make a political argument to sacrifice something now for a benefit that may or may not pay off for 10 or 20 years.”

Jeremy Herb and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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