By Tom Squitieri, Talk Media News
WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin inherited a host of worldwide hot spots when he took office that was quickly augmented by a menu of near-exploding issues within the ranks. Yet all eyes are on what he does with one long-standing Congressional swoon: the budget.
Barring a riot in the ranks or an ignition of fury overseas in the Middle East or the South China Sea, analysts and Pentagon watchers say Austin’s first marker will be the budget proposal he helps the White House shape for an institution now in the fiscal crosshairs.
“He does not have a lot of time to put together the budget,” Mark Cancian, the senior adviser, International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview. “That budget (for FY 2022 budget) needs to go out to the Congress late April, early May. It is their first chance to put its policy stamp on the budget and the programs.”
The fiscal 2020 defense budget topped $738 billion, another in a string of defense budget increases — 2019, $731.75 billion; 2018, $682.49 billion; 2017, $646.75 billion; and 2016, $639.86 billion.
Pentagon officials have said they are behind in budget preparation in because of the late transition between the Trump and Biden administration. They are already feeling heat from some Democrats who want to cut the budget – from modest cuts to deep canyons.
“Work has already started on the ’22 budget,” John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesperson told reporters, in part, on February 11. “I don’t have specifics for you on that. The — our team has just arrived here in the last couple of weeks, so there’s a lot of work to do to get up to speed on what — what planning the services have done thus far and to make sure it nests well with the — with this administration’s defense policies.”
More liberal members of the Democratic Party have voiced desires to cut defense spending, especially in light of significant troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. That feeling is shared by some think tanks and other independent groups.
“The biggest thing (Austin) faces is the budget,’ Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, said in an interview. “He needs to start to move on the budget now. To cut it, in a way that is considerable, with a discernible strategic change that has the Biden administration mark on it.”
If Biden and Autin do not step out with a bold budget, it will show they are just ratifying the status quo,, he said.
Many see new Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks as the incoming Pentagon budget point person. Austin has never worked with Hicks and has no relationship with her, associates say. Austin did not talk much about the budget during his confirmation hearing while Hicks was questioned extensively on fiscal paths.
She told the Senate committee at her February 2 confirmation hearing that she would seek to recast some procedures to spur improvements in defense spending.
“I think we have to change the incentives around how you promote business reform and, exactly, if the incentive structure is you only get your money if you spend it inefficiently and can hold onto it and hide the ball, we’re never going to get the business reform we need. So we need to change the incentive structure,” Hicks said.
She said several times there may be a delay in getting the fiscal 2022 budget to Congress due to delays in the transition.
“The Trump administration worked on an FY22 budget. That’s not unusual but typically that information is shared with the transition team,” Hick said.
Hicks led the Biden-Harris national security transition team. She said nothing came from the Trump side until late January.
“The inability to look at that information… I think it will cause some delay in the timeline by which we can give budget quality information back to Congress,” she said.”
She pushed back at quick calls for quick budget cuts.
“It would be hard to significantly squeeze the defense budget in light of the threats that we face,” Hicks said. “The focus on the topline number can really obscure a more important conversation about what is it we want our military, in the case of the Defense Department, to do and what hard choices are involved.”
Cancian said the budget will be a foundation in how the Pentagon is viewed and dealt with by Congress.
“The budget is probably going to be the first authoritative statement,” Cancian said. “They have to have that in by the beginning of May at the latest. That will drive what they are doing.”
PHOTO: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin greets Kathleen Hicks at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 9, 2021. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)