As the Islamic State continues to metastasize in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter warned lawmakers Wednesday that cutting the Pentagon’s budget could lead to serious threats to the nation’s homeland and urged members to find a solution to sequestration for the entire government.
Mr. Carter said the return of across-the-board cuts in fiscal 2016 threatens the military’s ability to respond to threats and, ultimately, puts the lives of American troops in danger.
“I want to be very clear about this: Under sequestration, which is set to return in 197 days, our nation will be less secure,” Mr. Carter said at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
Congress provided some relief from sequestration cuts in recent years, but without lawmakers reaching a compromise, the cuts will come back in full force in fiscal 2016. Mr. Carter emphasized that operating under even lower budget caps will require fundamental changes to the military.
“I do not believe we can keep making incremental cuts,” he said “We would have to change the shape and not just the size of our military, significantly impacting our defense strategy. We can not meet sequester with further half measures.”
As lawmakers debate slashing the budget to defend the country, the reach of the Islamic State is growing. Mr. Carter said other terrorist groups in the Middle East, such as Boko Haram, are “getting a new lease on life” by affiliating themselves with the Islamic State, which is continuing to spread through Northern Africa.
“This ability of this movement to spread through social media, to motivate younger members of groups who already existed … that is what makes it so dangerous and makes it so important to combat it wherever it arises,” Mr. Carter said.
In the latest example of violence in the region, gunmen in Tunisia killed almost 20 people on Wednesday at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, the country’s capital. While it’s unclear who is behind the attack, world leaders rushed to offer support for what they called a terrorist attack.
“Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned,” French President Francois Hollande said.
Tunisia has struggled with violence from Islamic extremists in recent years, including al Qaeda’s North African arm and the Islamic State, which has recruited about 3,000 Tunisians to join the fight, according to government estimates.
Mr. Carter emphasized that, with U.S. assistance, regional forces on the ground will play a crucial role in defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“We not only need to defeat ISIL, we need to defeat them in a lasting manner, and that’s always the difficult part,” he said. “That means having somebody on the ground who keeps them defeated after we assist them in the defeat.”
The president’s authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State would prohibit enduring offensive ground operations with U.S. troops. Republicans have been critical of the language for unnecessarily tying the commander-in-chief’s hands, while Democrats have said it is too vague and could be used for an American-lead ground war.
In a break from the majority of his party, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Texas Democrat, said that he believes air strikes alone will not be enough to permanently defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“The strategy is insufficient to achieve the president’s aims of degrading and destroying ISIS,” he said. “I think if we’re honest with ourselves…if we are going to achieve those aims we are going to need U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Syria.”
Though Mr. Carter acknowledged the nation will be less secure in a more volatile world under continued cuts to the Defense Department, he said he wouldn’t support a budget that provides relief for the military but not the rest of the government.
“We need relief from sequester across the board, it’s no way to run any part of the government,” Mr. Carter said.
Republican lawmakers seem willing to undo the across-the-board cuts to the Defense Department’s budget, but Democrats have said that they want a sequestration solution that provides budget relief to non-defense agencies as well, including entitlement programs.
Mr. Carter argued that security is dependent on more than just the Defense Department, saying that agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and law enforcement agencies also need full funding to keep the nation safe.