WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that the lack of a forward-looking, strong defense budget “has pushed our military to the breakpoint” and has cost more lives to training exercises than combat.
“We are letting them down and that is shameful,” Ryan (R-Wis.) said during a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Ryan said the U.S. needs “a clear unequivocal plan to ensure our military forces” do not become hollow, “but that path will get longer every day we play this military budget game.”
“This is why rebuilding our military is one of the highest priorities of our unified government. I can tell you that it is my highest priority today,” he said.
As he has in the past, Ryan blamed Senate Democrats for engaging in partisan politics by linking increases in defense spending to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) —legislation that protects “dreamers,” as young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children are known. That same position was trumpeted Tuesday as well by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
But Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) scoffed at the GOP tactic of blaming dreamer supporters and promising action down the road once defense spending is increased. He said members of his party need to realize that the Senate is capable of passing fair legislation in both areas.
The debate has intensified as the Pentagon prepares to formally unveil its new National Defense Strategy on Friday. President Donald Trump plans to visit the Pentagon today to confer with Defense Secretary James Mattis and other Pentagon leaders. An unclassified version of the document, the first update in four years, is to be released and Mattis plans a speech outlining the key points.
Trump has requested a $54 billion increase over the $549 billion in base defense budget caps for this year. Congress also passed a 2018 defense authorization bill that exceeds the cap by more than $80 billion.
Ryan called for bipartisan cooperation to adopt a budget agreement that fully funds troops and lifts spending caps that “hamstring the Pentagon.
“Instead of upgrading our hardware, we have let our equipment age. Instead of equipping our troops for tomorrow’s fight, we have let them become woefully under-equipped,” Ryan said.
He lamented that funding for modernizing the Army has been cut in half in the past eight years, sailors now work 100-hour weeks and sail on aging vessels, with only half of the Navy’s aircraft able to safely fly. He said 80 percent of Marine aviation lack full capabilities, and pointed out that the Air Force is at “its smallest size of this nation’s history,” with aircraft averaging 27 years old.
“The cost of readiness deficiencies is really dire,” Ryan said. “And they are really costing lives.”
He said 80 deaths were attributed to training exercises in 2017, which he said was “four times as many killed in combat.”
“We need to do better,” he said. The military “cannot plan for the future if it operates under these short-term spending bills.”
Ryan said he has seen the state of the military in visits to U.S. bases and plans to travel to Iraq next week to meet with troops.
Ryan said the military must be more lethal, agile and robust. “We need a military strategy for the 21st century.”