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​—Wilson Brissett

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) offered a portrait of a US military in disrepair after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency in a conversation with reporters in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. No matter what missteps or slowdowns President Donald Trump and his administration have produced in their first few months, “it’s a hell of a lot better than the last eight years,” which has left “readiness at an all-time low,” said McCain.

Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, agreed that “the closer you look, the deeper the damage is to our military.” He insisted that “to defend the country, we’ve got to repair the damage that’s been done to the military over the past several years.” He warned that if Congress passes another continuing resolution at the end of April, instead of a full defense appropriations bill, “all but one deploying Army unit will cease training after July 15. And that includes units scheduled to deploy to Korea and Europe." The Marine Corps also would have to stop “all flight operations in July and have to get rid of over 2,000 marines."

Both made clear that they placed rebuilding the military as a higher priority than trimming the budget. “I believe that fiscal responsibility is of the utmost importance,” said McCain, “but I believe that national security ranks above that.” Thornberry echoed this sentiment, insisting that “we cannot wait to fix the airplanes and fix the ships until we get the budget balanced.”

The congressmen recommended a three-part budget strategy to begin addressing the readiness problems. First, the Senate needs to approve the House’s FY17 defense appropriations bill, and both chambers should approve the $30 billion 2017 supplemental request released by the Department of Defense last week. Then, Congress needs to work on “an FY18 budget that starts to turn things around,” Thornberry said.

None of these would be easy votes, however. The Senate is unlikely to consider FY17 defense appropriations soon because its agenda, McCain admitted, is currently “crowded with Obamacare, with the budget, with [Neil] Gorsuch [President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee] coming to the floor as well.” And timing is not the only concern. Approval of the supplemental request would require the Congress to lift the 2011 Budget Control Act spending caps, unless all the funds were approved as overseas contingency operations money. While Pentagon leaders under the Obama Administration regularly complained that this budgeting strategy produces instability in established defense programs and worsens readiness, Thornberry said, “We need a supplemental to begin the healing” and “I don’t care what label is on the money.”

The President’s FY18 budget blueprint, released last week, has also taken heavy fire from both sides of the aisle. McCain and Thornberry criticized Trump’s proposal for not raising military spending enough to address the readiness shortfall, but members of both parties have objected to the budget’s proposal to cut State Department and foreign aid funding to pay for more defense spending. “It’s not going to happen,” McCain and Thornberry each said Wednesday morning, speaking of the State Department cuts.

So while the prospects of avoiding another CR look dim, McCain said, “it’s almost criminal,” if Congress can’t pass a regular FY17 appropriations bill. Thornberry said Congress is “playing games with the defense budget” while failing to realize that “this is lives and death and real consequences” at stake for military members. For too long, he said, individual lawmakers have used “the defense budget as leverage for our favorite projects, and that’s wrong.”

Part of the problem, Thornberry said, is that both the Pentagon and the Congress “need to do a better job of … making readiness problems real, more concrete.” The nation—and even Congress—needs to understand that Air Force pilots are now getting “fewer hours in the cockpit than the Russians and Chinese they may fly against.” The military also has a responsibility here, Thornberry said, because its leaders are “still somewhat reluctant to talk about the shortcomings.” To fill that information gap, HASC has been holding “classified sessions” where military leaders can brief a smaller audience on readiness challenges they face. McCain also mentioned a study that RAND produced for SASC that he hopes could be declassified soon. “It would be an eye-opener to some,” he said.

McCain and Thornberry also told reporters that inefficiencies in acquisitions are still part of the defense budget problem. The current poster child for DOD procurement dysfunction is the F-35 program, they said. “It’s a national shame and disgrace,” McCain said, and “historians will be talking about the failure of this effort.” He said that even the recent good news of price reductions for the lot 10 F-35 contract with Lockheed Martin were complicated by reports of a “six-month delay” in the System Design and Development phase. “We think that’s an additional billion dollars,” McCain said. “I don’t know if they’re taking that into account while trumpeting the cost savings.”

To improve acquisition, the lawmakers are focused on clarifying requirements and fighting against joint programs. “You can’t let requirements change as you’re continuing to build the ship,” Thornberry said, making reference to the Navy’s troubled Littoral Combat Ship program. McCain blamed the joint nature of the F-35 program for its delays and cost overruns. With a program that everybody owns, Congress cannot hold a single service responsible for problems. “When everybody’s responsible, nobody’s responsible,” McCain said. “If we don’t learn the lessons from that,” Thornberry warned, “then added shame will be on us.”