Alexander Kubitza/Department of Defense

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Department’s Chief Financial Officer Mike McCord testify Thursday, March 23, 2023, before the House Appropriations Committee’s subpanel on defense in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington about the fiscal 2024 defense budget. (Alexander Kubitza/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — The military’s top leaders warned lawmakers Thursday that Republican calls to shrink defense spending to 2022 levels would force major program cutbacks that would jeopardize national security.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the potential fallout of the funding cuts to a defense subpanel of the House Appropriations Committee as the Pentagon began justifying its $842 billion budget request for fiscal 2024 on Capitol Hill.

“Everything that has been achieved over the last three, four, five, six, seven years — all of that would start going in the opposite direction,” Milley said. “I think it would be very significant and the risk would increase with China. It would be the wrong signal to send.”

Milley’s prediction came at the prompting of Democrats on the subpanel, who expressed alarm over a reported deal brokered by Republicans to bring government spending down to fiscal 2022 levels during a contentious vote for the House speakership in January. It is unclear if defense funding will be part of Republican negotiations over the total budget for fiscal 2024, which begins Oct. 1, but appropriators said they feared any possible impact on the military.

“I’m deeply concerned about efforts to reduce our defense top line to previous years’ level, especially as China increases its own military spending each year,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. “If we don’t prioritize investing in our national security today, I fear we risk a much costlier fight with China down the road, whenever that may be.”

If budget cuts were approved, Milley said training and work with allies would have to be curtailed in the Indo-Pacific region, where the Defense Department is investing heavily in efforts to counter China’s rising power and prevent a Chinese takeover of Taiwan. The Pentagon is asking to spend $9.1 billion on an initiative to build up defenses in Hawaii and Guam and strengthen partnerships in the region — a 40% increase from last year.

“You’re going to force us to reduce our up tempo, force us to do less Taiwan Strait transitions, less freedom of navigation, less patrolling of the air, less [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], everything will be less,” Milley said. “The probable result will be an acceleration of what could be some sort of aggressive moves in the future by China or other countries.”

The military now has about 120,000 troops deployed overseas, and the Army and Marine Corps alone conducted 24,000 live-fire exercises last year, providing a great deterrent against enemy actions, he said. The U.S. notably signed an agreement with the Philippines last month that will double the number of sites that the two militaries can work on together, Austin said.

Milley cautioned that Congress’ yearslong inability to pass budgets on time will compound the consequences of funding cuts and cause harm on their own, affecting artillery production, shipbuilding and the F-35 fighter jet development program.

“We know if the budget is not passed on time, you can’t do multiyear contracts, you can’t lock in for industry the amount of ammunition and platforms you need,” he said.

Funding reductions in other government departments also would have a negative impact on defense, Austin said. Cutting the State Department’s budget, for example, could save money on diplomatic efforts in the short term but eventually lead to larger spending on defense, he said.

“The solution to every problem is not necessarily a military solution,” Austin said. “We need to work together to provide access to other agencies so they can reach the places they need to reach and do the things they need to do. It is typically a whole of government effort, and I think we need to remain mindful of that.”

Austin also pushed back against suggestions by some Republicans to place the burden of defense cuts on the Defense Department’s civilian employees. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel, introduced legislation in recent years requiring the department to slash the civilian workforce by 15% to save $125 billion in five years.

Austin said such reductions, particularly on civilian cyber security employees, would leave a considerable hole in the Pentagon.

“If we cut those kinds of people, I think it’ll have a significant impact on our war-fighting capability,” he said.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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