New leaders and budget, old wars and foes, worry Pentagon in 2019

Anyone walking into the Pentagon these days can sense the uncertainty — indeed, the apprehension — that pulsates throughout what its denizens call “The Building.” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is gone, and no one knows how long Deputy Secretary Pat Shanahan will act in Mattis’ place.

Initially, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build Trump Tower in Moscow during 2016 campaign: report DC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE announced that Shanahan would function in the role for a long time. No one really knows what “a long time” means. In any event, in recent days rumors have circulated that Trump may appoint former Democratic senator and Reagan administration Navy secretary Jim Webb as Mattis’ successor.

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Serving as an “acting” official never is easy. It is difficult to launch initiatives, since one’s term could end at any time, and the bureaucracy tends to drag its heels in anticipation of a new boss.

That Shanahan is still the Senate-confirmed deputy secretary should, in theory, render it easier for him to move the Pentagon forward. That David Norquist, the Department of Defense (DOD)  comptroller (and my former deputy when I served as comptroller) was named acting deputy secretary also works in Shanahan’s favor. Norquist is as well-liked, within DOD and on Capitol Hill, as he is talented. He works well with Shanahan; they often testify together before the Congress.

Nevertheless, having the president tolerate rumors of a possible successor does nothing to mitigate Shanahan’s difficulties. Would he elect to stay on as deputy secretary if he is not chosen for the top job? And if not, does Norquist replace him? And if not Norquist, then who?

For the DOD, the No. 1 priority in 2019 is having a Senate-confirmed secretary and deputy secretary who can actively lead the department in a very trying time.

Complicating the question of Pentagon civilian leadership has been the president’s decision to name a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 10 months before the current chairman, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, is scheduled to retire. Under normal circumstances, the secretary of Defense recommends a candidate for the chairmanship. This appears not to have been the case in this instance.

Moreover, by making his announcement so far ahead of the expected turnover, instead of doing so in the usual manner a few months before the chairman’s retirement, the president has risked undercutting Dunford’s authority, which hopefully will be offset by the tremendous respect that Dunford commands throughout the military and among America’s allies and friends.

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In addition to uncertainty about its civilian leadership, the Pentagon confronts the challenge of determining its budget top line, a perennial DOD priority. President Trump appears to have backed away from his desire to reduce the fiscal year 2020 defense budget from $733 billion to $700 billion. Nevertheless, even that lower number is well above the official Budget Control Act defense spending cap of $576 billion for the upcoming fiscal year.

With the House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, many of whom wish to see reduced spending on defense — as do some conservative Republican budget hawks — it is not at all clear where the Defense top line will finally settle. Even if there is yet another agreement to raise spending above the currently projected caps for domestic and defense spending, it is highly unlikely that it would provide for anything near the $733 billion that DOD originally expected to ask for, and likely would be even lower than Trump’s erstwhile target of $700 billion.

Any major reduction in projected defense spending will force DOD to reconsider its priorities. Under Mattis’ leadership, DOD had begun to remedy its serious readiness shortfalls, but more funding was needed to ensure that the services met their readiness targets. FY 2020 was meant to be a year of significant funding for research, development and procurement, including ongoing funding for major systems such as the Air Force’s B-21 bomber, another aircraft carrier and the F-35 fighter.

Other programs, such as those for cyber warfare, and space-related capabilities were expected to benefit from funding increases. If a budget deal reduces the defense top line, program delays and even cancellations will inevitably result.

Yet another area of uncertainty is the extent to which the military will continue to carry out missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan, until now a major priority. The president has made clear that he wants to ratchet back American involvement in Syria and Afghanistan, while a majority, perhaps a large majority, of Congress would prefer to have the United States wash its hands of the war in Yemen.

On the other hand, Trump appears to have backtracked on his initial impulse to withdraw American troops from Syria immediately, and may also revisit his decision to cut in half the military’s presence in Afghanistan.

As for Yemen, the Democratic-controlled House likely will vote to cut off funding for American involvement there; the Republican-controlled Senate, having passed a resolution opposing America’s role in that war, could well follow suit. Yet, it is uncertain whether the Congress could command a sufficient majority to override a possible presidential veto.

Finally, confronting the twin challenges of Russia and China, especially the latter, will remain a high priority for the department, as the National Defense Strategy made clear and as Shanahan emphasized in his first meetings as acting secretary of Defense. Meeting the requirements generated by concern over Chinese capabilities, in particular, calls for the very budget increases that are as yet undetermined — as well as for some clarity regarding the military’s role in the Middle East and Afghanistan, which likewise remains unresolved.

Nevertheless, despite all the uncertainty, despite the drop in morale, both the military and DOD civilians continue to go about their business of supporting and defending America’s interests worldwide. That is no mean feat at the best of times. Given current circumstances, however, their efforts are especially deserving of the nation’s undying gratitude.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.