- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2019

In his first appearance on Capitol Hill since taking over the Defense Department, acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan is making his case for the $718 billion proposed defense budget that military leaders say is a crucial step in reversing “decades of erosion” of the U.S. armed forces.

Sitting beside Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Shanahan highlighted the need to enlarge the defense budget to compete with China’s rapidly modernizing military, Russia’s growing nuclear arsenal and cyber threats, and to counter Iran in the Middle East.

“Our competitors have not been complacent,” Mr. Shanahan said in his prepared remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. “They have accelerated their own military modernization efforts and vigorously pursued the development and fielding of advanced technologies with a clear intent: create an asymmetric military advantage against us, our allies, and our partners.”

Officials said the massive spending plan is an important step to repair and rebuild the U.S. military but stressed that Congress must continue to provide funding certainty.

“We can’t reverse decades of erosion in just a few years,” Gen. Dunford told lawmakers.

President Trump wants to increase the defense fiscal year 2020 budget by just under 3 percent, an increase that has seen mixed reaction on Capitol Hill from Republicans who anticipated an increase closer to 5 percent, and many Democrats who prefer more spending on social programs.

The acting secretary also endorsed Mr. Trump’s plan to sharply reduce the number of U.S. troops from Syria. “As the U.S. drawdown continues, we will maintain a presence to prevent ISIS resurgence,” he told the committee.

Mr. Shanahan told lawmakers that “virtually all of the territory ISIS once held” has been liberated, but the fight against remnants of Islamic State is still not fully complete.

Gen. Dunford was pressed by Sen. Debra Fischer, Nebraska Republican, on a proposed “No First Use” Act that would make it the official policy of the U.S. not to be the first combatant in war to use nuclear weapons. The Pentagon has long resisted adopting a blanket “no first use” doctrine in its nuclear strategy.

“Current policy is the right policy,” Gen. Dunford responded. “I wouldn’t make any decisions to simplify an adversary’s decision-making calculus.”

“I can also imagine a few situations where we wouldn’t want to remove that option from the president,” he added.

Mr. Shanahan’s appearance comes three months after he filled the position left by former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who left his post abruptly after simmering tensions with Mr. Trump over his tenure, capped by a disagreement with over the handling of the Syrian withdrawal in December.

Mr. Trump has not yet nominated a permanent new chief for the Pentagon, but has expressed he is in “in no rush,” and has even mused in the past that he at times prefers “acting” Cabinet officials because they give him more “flexibility.”

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