Pentagon chiefs say debt default could risk national security

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, along with seven former Pentagon chiefs, on Wednesday warned Congress that a debt default would damage U.S. national security and harm military families.

“If the United States defaults, it would undermine the economic strength on which our national security rests,” Austin said in a statement. “It would also seriously harm our service members and their families because, as Secretary, I would have no authority or ability to ensure that our service members, civilians, or contractors would be paid in full or on time.”

In a separate letter sent to Congress on Wednesday, six former Defense secretaries make the same plea, beseeching lawmakers “to work together to raise the statutory debt limit and avoid catastrophic consequences for the Defense Department, our military families, and our position of leadership in the world.”

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, William Perry, William Cohen, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Aston Carter and James Mattis signed the letter.

The U.S. reached its federal borrowing limit in July, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warning leadership that they need to raise it by Oct. 18 or risk a historic default. 

Republicans have vowed to not provide votes to raise the debt ceiling, leaving Senate Democrats scrambling to come up with a backup plan.

Though the debt limit covers spending Congress has already approved, Austin cites several risks related to a default, including risking the benefits “earned by and owed to 2.4 million military retirees and 400,000 survivors.”

In addition, “federal contractors, including large firms and thousands of small businesses, that provide our military with world-class services, technology, and equipment could have their payments delayed, jeopardizing their operations and many American jobs.”

Austin also said a default “risks undermining the international reputation of the United States as a reliable and trustworthy economic and national security partner,” as well as the “stature of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency of choice.”

“Our service members and Department of Defense civilians live up to their commitments. My hope is that, as a nation, we will come together to ensure we meet our obligations to them, without delay or disruption,” he adds.

Similarly, the former Pentagon chiefs say if the U.S. government fails to pay 2.1 million military members “we will not have a highly capable military to fight and win the nation’s wars.” 

As for the federal contractors “who operate our military bases at home and abroad and provide service to crucial defense technologies,” a failure to pay them for work they have already been approved to undertake “could jeopardize ongoing military training and readiness.” 

They argue that Congress can avoid this outcome by agreeing “as it has roughly 80 times before – to authorize the government to pay bills it has already incurred.” 

The former officials also argue that a default on the will send a signal to allies and adversaries “that America does not keep its word to our military forces. We can hardly think of a more damaging message in an era of global instability and the rise of great power competition.” 

“It would be tragic to allow partisanship to now deny those critical resources essential to protecting our national security,” they add.

Updated at 5:26 p.m.

Tags Chuck Hagel James Mattis Janet Yellen Lloyd Austin

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