Reps. Don Bacon and Rick Larsen share their views on defense priorities and challenges

An aerial view of the Pentagon in Washington August 31, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS) - GM1E6910E5T01

Since the Budget Control Act went into effect, the U.S. military has been operating in a particularly tumultuous budgetary environment. Amidst these concerns, a high operational tempo continues to threaten readiness across the services.

On October 11, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted an event examining a range of defense questions. The featured speakers were Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Representative Don Bacon (R-NE), both of whom sit on the House Armed Services Committee. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon interviewed the congressional representatives and moderated the discussion.

Dollars and cents

O’Hanlon asked the congressmen to frame how they see the defense debate evolving today. Rep. Larsen—who has served in Congress for 17 years—described what he called a “triangle of tension” in the House Armed Services Committee (HASC): procurement, operations, and readiness. Rep. Larsen pointed out these three items are “always in tension, and pulling on each other.” He also highlighted how the triangle of tension has grown more pervasive, in part thanks to sequestration and other budget caps.

Rep. Bacon indicated that he felt readiness is a big concern. He spoke of how the U.S. Air Force, where he began his career, used to fly two hours to every one when compared to Russia and China. These days, he says U.S. crews are now flying about one-third of what they did back then. “When you fly one-third of the hours, people get out because it’s not rewarding,” said Bacon.

He also pointed to large-power disagreements, the likes of which have been more acute recently, particularly in regards to Russia and China.

Perhaps most importantly, Bacon pointed a finger at partisanship here at home. Our “gravest threat is partisan divide,” he said. Arguing that both sides need to do more to combat this issue, he also pointed out “because of partisan rancor and vitriol, we have not been able to plus up spending.”

Pivoting to the current budget debate, O’Hanlon highlighted the various options for top-line numbers. To frame the possibilities, O’Hanlon noted that President Trump’s budget for overall national defense (Department of Defense including war costs, plus Department of Energy nuclear weapons costs) is roughly in the mid-$600 billion range. Congressional requests are closer to $700 billion. Caps may make both sums difficult to attain, he said.

Rep. Bacon indicated he backs the budget plan that is closer to $700 billion, which is on the high end of potential outcomes. He went on to indicate that there are questions as to how modifications might affect domestic spending and entitlements, but that he “would prefer doing the right thing on national security.”

Rep. Larsen reminded the audience that Congress “has to pass an entire budget.” In that sense, he noted it “seems a bit irresponsible” to try to separate parts of it as less important than other parts. By the time the current continuing resolution runs out in December, he added: “We will have something, but it won’t be clean and it won’t be nice.”

When it comes to moving forward toward a final budget, Bacon indicated he thought spending caps might end up being removed, at least for defense. He also returned to the fact that parties “have to reach across the aisle and find a middle ground.”

The priority problem

Turning to defense and security threats, O’Hanlon asked the representatives to share their most pressing concerns moving forward.

Rep. Bacon first turned toward Russia. He indicated that we are “starting to frame the Russian threat right,” and stated “their agenda is not our agenda.”

More broadly, regarding Russia and China, Rep. Bacon alluded to the increasing attention that both nations are devoting toward countering the United States in space as well as in cyber realms. He suggested that we need to spend more time and money on ensuring our space assets are safe and secure, as well continuing to improve resilience in cyberspace.

On cyber in particular, the “Russians are very good and very aggressive … and we are among the most vulnerable,” Bacon stated. He concluded: “We cannot take this for granted.”

Larsen urged the need to better differentiate threats and opportunities from Russia and China. “At times we lump China and Russia as a single threat,” he said, adding that it’s not the right way to look at it. He pointed out that China tends to know where it wants to be in the world order, and it’s not necessarily as a competitor in every sense. Overall, he thinks there is “plenty of room for optimism” when it comes to China.

As the event wrapped up, an audience member asked a question about electronic warfare (EW). Both Reps. Larsen and Bacon are part of a congressional working group on the subject. 

Larsen said he initially got involved in the subject because EW platforms were developed in his district, but that over time it has evolved into a broader interest of his. His big fears on the subject are the lengthy time periods required to develop new capabilities, and the frequent lack of adequate funding for such capabilities. He concluded: “[We] need to be more consistent with budget commitment [for EW] across the services.”

Bacon concurred, adding that our competitors have been increasing their capabilities while ours have atrophied. Bacon also said he believes we should elevate EW’s importance to that of a physical domain.