Austerity Cloud Hovers Over Pentagon Wish List for Guerillas and Climate

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

The Senate-passed, fiscal 2018 Defense Authorization Bill carries two little-publicized amendments that will impact future war-fighting capabilities.

But the measure fails to deal with the darkest cloud hovering over the Pentagon: sequestration. That problem was kicked down the road, thus requiring some eventual congressional action, since both the House and Senate have approved fiscal 2018 core Defense Department spending that far exceeds the lawful $549 billion cap required by the Budget Control Act.

More about that later.

Tucked into the Senate measure is language that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said would provide Special Operations Command (SOCOM) “new authority designed to support the ability of our special operators to work with partners to counter irregular warfare, or so-called gray zone challenges, posed by our adversaries.”

A 2014, Joint Service publication on Special Operations doctrine defined irregular warfare as having two elements: Counterinsurgency through which the U.S. military offers support to “a nation state against an insurgency, resistance or terrorists;” or Unconventional Warfare in which support is offered to “an insurgency or resistance movement against a nation state.”

It described Unconventional Warfare operations as having objectives such as “supporting the insurgency/resistance movement so it can influence, coerce, disrupt, or foster a change in governing authority.”

The document recognizes the “sensitive nature” of Unconventional Warfare operations so that they require not only “coordination, deconfliction and integration” across the U.S. government, but also “potential strategic risk and diplomatic and/or political sensitivity” of such operations if they become public.

In short, Unconventional Warfare is much like covert operations undertaken by CIA, although they not only require a Presidential Finding but also reporting to Congress in a timely manner.

At a May 4, Senate Armed Services hearing, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the ranking Democrat on the panel, asked Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, SOCOM commander, whether he needed the same kind of authority he already had to justify aiding a country dealing with its counterterrorism problem when it came to the “gray areas of unconventional warfare,” meaning assisting those opposing their own government’s leadership.

SOCOM already has a unique version of Section 1208 authority which permits it to provide support to foreign forces, both regular and irregular, who are fighting counterterrorism or counterinsurgency elements in defending their own country’s government.

Thomas referred to that and told Reed, “Senator we’re actively pursuing both the authorities and the resources that would enable more enhanced unconventional warfare operations.”

Congress, in the current authorization bill, is providing the resources. The Senate measure even approved an extra $85 million above the administration’s request “to help address unfunded requirements for additional intelligence collection, precision strike, undersea mobility, and communication capabilities,” McCain said last week.

The language in the Senate bill, if it becomes law, would provide the authority to use such equipment in unconventional warfare operations.

In a different area, the Senate bill also pushed the need for the Defense Department to not just recognize climate change, but also to continue to do something about it – a stance almost in direct opposition to what the Trump administration is doing in other parts of government.

“Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” James Mattis wrote in answering written questions he received from Congress during his Defense Secretary confirmation process.

He also said, “I will ensure that the Department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

The Senate bill in effect put those thoughts into legislation by requiring the Pentagon to submit a ‘‘comprehensive threat assessment’’ describing climate risks to military missions, climate-related vulnerabilities to the military infrastructure, and delivering an “implementation master plan” that would limit climate related mission risks and incorporate climate-related events in combatant commanders’ contingency plans.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), during floor debate last Thursday, pointed to a Government Accountability Office report that said, “The Army’s Fort Irwin, Calif., is susceptible to heavy rain and flooding. Air Force radar installations in Alaska stand on unstable thawing permafrost [and] the Diego Garcia installation in the Indian Ocean and Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia each face rising seas.”

Even the House included climate-change related language in its version of the defense authorization bill, all but guaranteeing the issue will remain in the legislation that goes to the White House.

Meanwhile, whatever happens to the Defense Authorization legislation, the Budget Control Act passed in 2011, with its $549 billion cap for fiscal 2018, remains “the law of the land,” despite not providing “the military we need,” as McCain said last week.

Passage of the roughly $640 billion in the Senate approved bill for fiscal 2018 would trigger sequestration—across-the-board cuts –of some $88 billion, leaving what McCain called “a very complicated situation.”

“We would be giving money on one hand and taking it back with the other, literally,” he continued.

The answer is either to make changes to the discretionary budget caps for both defense and non-defense spending, as Democrats call for and as has been done in the past, or do away with the Budget Control Act caps and sequestration.

As McCain pointed out last week, using as an example the federal responses to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, “We understand that the well-being of our nation—and what our men and women in uniform are fighting for—depends on funded and functioning domestic agencies, not just the Department of Defense.”

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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