Mattis: Lack of Funding Stability, Adversaries’ Advancements Put America’s Future at Risk

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis provides the keynote address on the last day of AFA's Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Sept. 20, 2017. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

Budget uncertainty born and bred in Congress not only threatens the readiness of the US military, it raises doubts on the survivability of America itself as new adversaries plan around perceived weaknesses in the country’s defenses, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned.

Continuing resolutions and prolonged budget uncertainty has taken “managerial integrity” away from lawmakers and caused more damage to the military’s readiness than any other threat, or war, the country has faced in recent history, Mattis said at ASC17.

“We have no God-given right to victory on the battlefield,” Mattis said in his keynote address on the last day of the conference. “And in that regard make no mistake that our adversaries right now are making concentrated efforts to erode our competitive edge.”

Adversaries are challenging American dominance in all realms, especially air, space, and cyber. A joint effort to rebuild readiness and lethality is required, and should be focused on a main problem statement: “How do we maintain a nuclear deterrence and a decisive conventional force, while maintaining irregular warfare as a core competency.”

The budget issues are just one problem. Stable funding also is needed through lifting defense spending caps, Mattis said.

Strong commitment to allies—both in alliances as NATO and in individual partnerships with other nations—also needs to be strengthened.

“History is compelling on this point: Nations with allies thrive, those without allies decline,” Mattis said. “It’s that simple.”

The Pentagon’s processes and procedures need to be ally friendly, and members of the US military need to not only listen to partner nations but also must “be willing to be persuaded” because “not all the good ideas come from the nation with the most aircraft carriers.”

The department is also pushing to reform its business practices, to make sure the Pentagon has the confidence of Congress and the American people that it is “gaining full value” of its funding. Mattis highlighted possible changes to the JSTARS recapitalization program as something he is “eager to hear” as a different way forward on acquisition.

Mattis’s speech comes as the US is struggling to address the growing belligerence of North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. The effort to deter Kim Jong Un is still diplomatically led, with the State Department pushing for sanctions. US adversaries need to understand it is better to deal with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson than to deal with the US military.

“We must also recognize the somber reality that military options must be available in order to protect our allies,” Mattis said.

Mattis, speaking to a crowd made up almost entirely of USAF personnel, pressed the importance of airpower in the current Middle East fight, and for future battlefields. American air superiority is built on the reputation earned in World War II and has held firm.

“We’re going right on into the future with the US Air Force where it belongs, overhead,” Mattis said.

“I do expect that you can fight well and you will win, it’s that simple. … America’s ground and other forces have long operated with the confidence that no evil could come down upon them from above.”