SecDef Esper Calls for More Defense Dollars to Offset Gains by China and Russia

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Defense Secretary Esper at the Heritage Foundation.
Defense Secretary Esper participates in a discussion at the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., Oct. 15, 2020. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)

The U.S. military is ready to fight tonight, but it won't be in the future unless Congress continues to boost defense budgets, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday.

The addition of $200 billion to defense spending in recent years to a record level of $740 billion has resulted in a better-trained military that can deploy rapidly to meet current threats, Esper said, but an increase of 3% to 5% in Defense Department budgets will be vital to maintain readiness in the coming years.

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"The bottom-line question we must answer is this: If called upon to fight tonight, are we ready? Today, given our efforts of the past few years, I am fully confident that the answer to that question is a resounding 'Yes,'" Esper said at a virtual Heritage Foundation forum.

But the answer will be less certain without more funding as the military continues to transition from the post-9/11 counterterrorism wars to preparations for potential conflict with China and Russia, he added.

Esper cited a range of immediate needs, including $20 billion for shipyard overhauls, and long-term goals to improve sealift and airlift, install a new and secure IT structure for force management, and protect space assets.

"The success of our efforts relies on the support of Congress," he said. "In the face of rising strategic threats, we depend on steady fiscal commitments to sustain our current force and prepare for tomorrow's challenges. … Our people must have the resources they need, when they need them, so that they never find themselves in a fair fight."

Esper did not address, and was not asked about, his own status in carrying out ambitious plans that include a 500-ship Navy by 2045.

He has adopted a decidedly low profile in recent weeks, to the point where he does not go on record with reporters traveling with him. He almost certainly will be replaced should former Vice President Joe Biden win the November presidential election.

In addition, President Donald Trump appears to have added him to a list of administration officials in disfavor since Esper in June made clear that he was against sending active-duty troops into the streets to quell protests.

On June 3, the day after Esper made that statement, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to say whether Trump still had confidence in him.

"As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper and, should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future," she said.

Esper also was not asked at the Heritage Foundation, and did not comment upon, whether troops might become involved if the election results in November are disputed, or whether they might assist at polling places.

In a National Public Radio interview that aired Monday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said there is "zero" chance of the active-duty force becoming involved in a contested election.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: 7 Things to Know About the Pentagon's New Plan for a 500-Ship Navy Fleet

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