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Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller and guests walk alongside the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Rafael Peralta before the christening ceremony at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, Oct. 31, 2015.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller and guests walk alongside the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Rafael Peralta before the christening ceremony at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, Oct. 31, 2015. (Gabriela Garcia/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

WASHINGTON — Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., and senior member the House Armed Service Committee, railed Thursday for an unpopular response to the ballooning U.S. deficit — a war tax.

Jones made the sobering comments at a congressional forum for the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition, where much of the theme was focused on boosting the U.S. military ship supply.

The national debt is nearing $21 trillion and is slated to nearly eclipse the Gross Domestic Product, a benchmark of economic health, by 2028.

“It cannot keep going that way if we want a strong military. There needs to be a national push for a dedicated war tax,” Jones told an audience of military, congressional and industry representatives. “That’s not very popular to say around many people but if you want a strong military you have to pay for it. Congress cannot continue to borrow from the next generation.”

While talk of a war tax has come up before as U.S. debt escalates amid America’s longest war, the unpopular idea hasn’t seen much traction.

On Monday, the Pentagon released a 2019 budget plan seeking a 10 percent hike in funding to $686.1 billion to grow the size and might of the military, primarily in response to China and Russia’s growing capabilities.

“It’s a lot of money. I’m a taxpayer like anybody else,” said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, the forum’s keynote speaker. Like the other services, “all I can assure you is your Marine Corps … (is) going to do everything we can to get the best value for every dollar we get.”

But lawmakers have yet to appropriate money for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, which is slated to happen later this year.

“The best thing about the 2019 budget, is if we get an appropriation deal … we are not going to have to have this discussion next year,” Neller said.

Trump’s overall $4.4 trillion 2019 budget proposal faces criticism, as the plan could add $7 trillion to the U.S. deficit. Still, experts say the Pentagon portion of that budget proposal is poised to win Capitol Hill support.

Last week, lawmakers reached a two-year deal to bust 2019 statutory spending limits.

“I want to see a strong military and I want the Congress to have the courage to have this kind of debate sooner rather than later,” Jones said. “This game of… borrowing from the next generation is a sin.”

Supporters of expanding the U.S. supply of amphibious ships said Thursday that Trump’s proposed budget still falls short.

“I am disappointed,” Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., member of the House Armed Services Committee, said of the ship funding.

The Marines must reach 38 amphibious ships, said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. While Trump’s 2019 budget calls for $21 billion for 10 ships, the floor must be $26.2 billion and 13 ships, Wittman said.

This year’s 30-year shipbuilding goal of 342 ships also falls short, and should be 355, he said.

“We have to get off the roller-coaster ride of building some ships,” said Wittman, chair of the sub-panel on seapower and projection forces. “Our Marines are great … but until we can get them to walk on water, we need to build them ships.”

Despite the goals, the Marines have only 31 ships in inventory and nearly half are in maintenance, said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and chair of Senate Armed Services Committee sub-panel on seapower.

“A lot of work remains,” Wicker said. “This is a sad testimony to years of budget instability. … But I hope those days are over. I’m hopeful that the budget agreement will not only plug readiness holes but also spark a serious and sustained expansion of the fleet.”

grisales.claudia@stripes.com Twitter: @cgrisales

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