General: Defense budget of less than $733B presents 'increased risk'

A top general warned Tuesday a defense budget of less than $733 billion next year would present “increased risk” to the military.

“Anything below $733 [billion] would increase risk and that risk would be manifested across the force,” Joint Staff director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Tuesday.

McKenzie was speaking at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to become the next commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and parts of South Asia.

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He was responding to a question from committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions Trump says he intends to nominate Esper to lead Pentagon The Hill's Morning Report - Trump's reelection message: Promises kept MORE (R-Okla.), who has been building his case for a $733 billion defense budget in fiscal 2020.

The Pentagon originally planned to propose a $733 billion budget next year, but President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE recently ordered all his Cabinet heads to slash their budgets over what he said were concerns about rising deficits.

For the Pentagon, that means it is now crafting a $700 billion budget proposal for next year. The department had already written the larger budget before Trump’s order and so plans to present him with both documents so he can see trade-offs.

Proponents of the larger budget, such as Inhofe, argue that a budget cut now would reverse progress made over the last two years to address a so-called readiness crisis.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions Trump says he intends to nominate Esper to lead Pentagon Trump expected to nominate Esper as Defense chief MORE also argued for the larger budget this weekend.

“Cutting defense will not close the deficit, and I would suggest doing so would be a disservice to troops and the American people they serve and protect, because we all know here today that America can afford survival,” Mattis said at the Reagan National Defense Forum.

On Tuesday, McKenzie said the $733 billion figure was reached based on the National Defense Strategy, which calls for a return to a so-called great power competition against near-peer competitors such as Russia and China.

McKenzie said the number could have been even higher, but that the Pentagon understands it “exists within a larger government.”

Following the order to cut the budget, McKenzie said the Pentagon is assessing what the risk would be.

“We are in the process now very carefully across the department examining the details of what the nature of that risk would be, who would it be imposed upon and the nature of it,” he said.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, testifying alongside McKenzie for his nomination to be commander of U.S Special Operations Command (SOCOM), said he would “associate” himself with McKenzie’s remarks.

He pledged to look more closely at what a cut would mean for special operations if he is confirmed. 

“We’ll have to look specifically at what that means to SOCOM’s budget and where that risk would be assumed,” he said, “whether it’s in readiness, whether or not it is in technologies requires, or whether it is in what we’re doing forward.”