Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told lawmakers some “over the horizon” U.S. combat support of Afghanistan’s military is already underway, even before the Sept. 11 deadline set by President Biden for a complete pullout of American forces.
Mr. Austin faced pointed questions before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s $715 billion Pentagon budget request and the future of Afghanistan after U.S. and allied forces leave.
Since the withdrawal began, some U.S. operations — primarily air-related — have begun shifting to other bases. Intelligence missions are being launched from friendly Gulf nations, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, while combat air patrols are increasingly being flown from aircraft carriers, Mr. Austin said.
“We are doing a lot of things ‘over the horizon’ now,” Mr. Austin told Congress.
But U.S. officials are still seeking countries closer to Afghanistan to base logistics support operations as the insurgent Taliban militants gain ground on the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
“That is still a work in progress,” Mr. Austin told lawmakers. “We will move as quickly as we can.”
Mr. Austin declined to say if the U.S. would provide air support in the event Kabul or any other major Afghan city is in danger of being overrun by Taliban forces. He said it would be “very difficult” to provide such support after the withdrawal because U.S. capabilities in the area would have diminished at that point.
Mr. Biden “has been clear that our mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished. We are focused on retrograding our people and equipment out,” he said.
Both Mr. Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended President Biden’s $715 billion defense budget request for fiscal 2022, amid skepticism from lawmakers that the administration is spending enough to meet the rising threat posed by China.
Mr. Austin said the proposed budget focuses on ensuring the U.S. military is ready for the battlefields of the future, requesting $10 billion for cyber operations, $28 billion to modernize the nation’s nuclear triad and $112 billion for research into future weapons and capabilities.
It is “the largest R&D request ever put forth by this department,” Mr. Austin said.
The budget also gives the Pentagon the flexibility to rid itself of older ships and aircraft that “no longer adequately meet our needs” and “demand more maintenance upkeep and risk than we can afford,” Mr. Austin said.
But Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the budget fails to meet the growing threat from China. In 2018, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy said 3% to 5% real annual growth in defense spending was needed to keep up with Beijing.
“This administration has given us a budget that cuts spending when we need real growth. They want the military to do more on climate change and pandemic response. More missions [but] with fewer resources,” he said. “We’ve been asking our military to do too much with too little. President Biden’s budget cut would make it even harder. It barely treads water while we face all these threats.”
Committee Chairman Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, praised the budget as a starting point for a broader program of national defense. He saluted the provision in the budget that provides a 2.7 percent pay increase for military members and civilians who work for the Pentagon.
“While this pay raise is required by law for military personnel, too often [Department of Defense] civilians have been overlooked,” Sen. Reed said.
The Pentagon says it will save more than $2 billion by getting rid of ships and aircraft it no longer needs. Sen. Mark Kelly, Arizona Democrat, took up the defense of the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt, a close air support fighter that has found itself on the Air Force’s chopping block for years. This year, officials want to scrap 42 of them.
“American troops rely on close air support in the most dire circumstances. The A-10 has saved the lives of many men and women because of its unique capabilities,” Mr. Kelly said.
Gen. Milley noted that, as an infantry soldier who has been in a lot of firefights, he was “personally, a big fan” of the A-10. He noted under the budget proposal, the Air Force will continue to have 239 A-10s in the air.
“This is a modest decrease in the number of A-10s,” Gen. Milley said. “We’ve got to recognize and begin to shift to a future operating environment and the changing character of war. … I think it is an acceptable risk.”