Esper: Pentagon's 2021 budget request builds modern, lethal force focused on China, Russia

The budget request, expected to be unveiled Monday, “supports irreversible implementation of the [2018] National Defense Strategy” by building a path to a more modern, combat-ready force, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wrote in a Jan. 27 memo.


By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 5, 2020

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 is meant to ensure the Defense Department can compete militarily with its great-power competitors China and Russia, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told senior leaders in a memorandum.

The budget request, expected to be unveiled Monday, “supports irreversible implementation of the [2018] National Defense Strategy” by building a path to a more modern, combat-ready force, Esper wrote in the Jan. 27 memo. The memo was sent to the civilian secretaries of the Pentagon’s three military departments and their top deputies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the four-star commanders of the 11 combatant commands.

Esper singled out four primary areas for those individuals to focus on during congressional testimony to defend the forthcoming budget request:

  • It would invest heavily in increasing military combat readiness and modern weaponry needed against a near-peer adversary.
  • It would strengthen and build military partnerships and alliances around the world.
  • It would reform the Pentagon for “greater performance and accountability.”
  • It would support troops and their families.

“Each component should ensure that [those] themes are incorporated into oral and written statements to our oversight committees,” Esper wrote in the memo, which was obtained by Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.

The Pentagon on Monday is expected to unveil its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal and the budgets for each of its military services as part of the White House’s budget proposal rollout. The overall budget is expected to be about $740 billion, which was agreed to last year by Congress as part of a two-year budget deal. The enacted Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2020 was about $730 billion.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy directs the Pentagon to prioritize power competition with rivals China and Russia over other global threats, including international terrorism — long the top focus of the U.S. military. It outlines a need for modern weapons to deter aggression from those nations, which have spent heavily in recent years to build forces more capable of competing with American troops and closely watched U.S. tactics in the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Esper wrote the forthcoming budget request would prioritize new spending to modernize the U.S. nuclear forces, seen as the country’s No. 1 deterrent. It would also focus on strengthening missile defense for the U.S. homeland.

The request includes funding for the expected build out of the Space Force, which was established in late 2019 with plans to grow to more than 10,000 troops through the next five years. It also funds efforts to create  a “Joint Warfighting Concept,” meant to allow the military services and their weapons systems to work better together on the battlefield.

The request would divert funding from older “legacy” weapons systems that the U.S. military has used for decades in order to better fund emerging technology, including hypersonic and directed energy weapons, artificial intelligence and autonomous platforms.

In the memo, Esper calls for growing American partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, considered critical to counter China’s growing economic and military influence across the globe. He also commits to “forming an enduring Middle East coalition.”

The proposed budget supports ongoing audits and reviews of the Defense Department meant to “free up time, money and manpower,” Esper wrote. It includes reforms to the so-called Pentagon Fourth Estate, organizations within the Defense Department not directly tied to the military departments. Esper wrote it would “constrain the growth” of the department’s non-warfighting agencies and activities to find savings “to put back into lethality.”

The 2021 budget proposal would also advocate for “robust pay” and benefits needed to attract and retain the best people for the military, Esper wrote. It would include improvements to and increased oversight of privatized, on-base military housing. It also would support on-base child care facilities and professional licensing and education programs for military spouses, he wrote.

Esper’s memo makes no mention of President Donald Trump’s border wall initiative. Last year, Trump moved about $7.2 billion from Pentagon counterdrug and construction coffers to be used to fund a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. The issue, strongly opposed by Democrats, was among the primary reasons the 2020 Pentagon budget was not approved by Congress until December, three months into the fiscal year.

The Department of Homeland Security last month asked the Pentagon to build about 270 miles of border wall this year, but officials at DHS and the Pentagon have not identified publicly how much that is expected to cost.

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC