Esper Knocks Navy Planning; Thornberry & Dems Oppose $3.8B For Wall

Esper Knocks Navy Planning; Thornberry & Dems Oppose $3.8B For Wall

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley brief the media at the Pentagon, Dec. 20, 2019.

CAPITOL HILL: The Pentagon considers the present moment “a pivot point as far as the changing character of war,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said today. His civilian boss added that any plans to address that remain very much a work in progress. 

As Breaking D readers know, the Joint Staff is working through a draft of a new Joint Warfighting Concept to guide how all of the branches of the armed forces will train, equip, and fight against modern adversaries, a plan that will underpin all other decisions in the department about how to continue to modernize. 

The Pentagon faces constraints as its budget, while huge, is essentially flat this year and may  be so for several years. That is going to make money and policy battles are the sharper since the pie is effectively getting smaller.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Milley were repeatedly hammered for agreeing to the White House’s demand to take $3.8 billion from the 2020 defense account — much of it for the National Guard and weapons — and move it to the president’s border wall. 

Several members warned they were prepared to pull the department’s ability to move money internally.

The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry, slammed the move, saying it is “substituting the judgement of the administration for the judgement of Congress. He added he is “deeply concerned about where we’re headed with the constitutional issue.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former Pentagon official and CIA analyst, warned Esper that while “it kills me” to consider taking those abilities away, “you leave us no choice but to look at what we can do to constrain your reprogramming authority… You’ve put us in a situation where, to uphold our constitutional oath and the separation of powers, we have to exert our authority, and I’m sorry to say that.”

On Tuesday, a senior defense official, speaking with reporters at the Pentagon to preview Esper’s testimony, didn’t appear to anticipate the lawmakers’ concern. “I don’t think we’ll lose that ability. We certainly, you know, will acknowledge that we made some members pretty unhappy about the process, there’s no question about that. But in the end they know that reprograms are a necessity.”

Democrats, as expected, broadly condemned the wall transfer. No other Republican joined Thornberry, a respected defense and intelligence lawmaker who is retiring in November. Republican Trent Kelly, who made sure to let the room know he supports the president’s border policies, did say he would have preferred if Congress had been consulted on the issue beforehand.

But the area where Esper took the most heat was the Navy shipbuilding plans and the lack of a 30-year shipbuilding plan which is legally required to be submitted to Congress with the fiscal 2021 budget request. 

Esper said he hasn’t seen the Navy’s 30-year plan yet, but suggested it’s tied up with a key force structure plan he blocked the Navy from releasing earlier this week. It’s unclear what flaw Esper found in the Integrated Force Structure Assessment, or INFSA, which was initially due in January, but his remarks today indicated he’s tasked the Navy with a major relook.

Underpinning the plan is an assumption that the Navy’s “Optimized Fleet Response Plan ” — its five year-old method for training, manning, and deploying its ships on a 36-month cycle —  works. The service has struggled with OFRP.  Instead of smoothing things out, the service has faced delays at shipyards, curtailed training availability due to constant and often extended deployments, and manning shortages. Esper wants it fixed.  

“An assumption in the INFSA is that the OFRP works,” Esper asserted. “The OFRP hasn’t worked for years, so why should we assume it will work in the future?”

That damming assessment of the Navy’s work shows just how far behind the Navy is in wrapping up its force structure assessment, and may signal trouble for its modernization effort overall. To fix things, Esper put Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist in charge of a “war game and analysis process” to scrutinize the Navy’s plan. That seems to indicate any result is months away.

“Two things we don’t have right now is an approved [operation] plan, a war plan, from which to baseline,” he said. “We should have that in a few months. The other one is going to take time. It’s going to be the new joint force doctrine,” that Milley is working on.

The Navy Department’s failure to submit the 30-year shipbuilding plan, which is due with the defense budget every four years, rankled lawmakers far more. Esper said he hadn’t seen it yet, and would submit it “once I’ve had a chance to review it and digest it and follow up on it.” 

That wasn’t the answer Rep. John Garamendi was looking for. “You are heading for a major brawl with this committee,” he bluntly told Esper. “The law is quite clear. When you submit your budget, you are to submit the shipbuilding plan and for you to say you’re going to give it to us on your own good time, and when you’re ready, you are not in line with the law.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, chairman of the House Armed Services sub-committee for seapower and projection forces, added “this is not sort of a feel-good law. It’s because Congress needs headlights to see where you’re going because of the fact that shipbuilding is such a long game. ”

The confusion and frustration coming from the committee today will probably grow sharper tomorrow, when acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, Navy chief Adm. Michael Gilday, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger appears to explain what is happening with their once-touted modernization plans.

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