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Day One: Esper Praises Budget Deal, Warns On China Tech, Iran

Posted by Paul McLeary on


Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrives at the Pentagon for his first day, July 24, 2019.

THE PENTAGON: Newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper today praised the two-year budget deal reached between Congress and the White House, saying he’s glad the department has a predictable funding stream even if the numbers don’t exactly match previous Pentagon estimates for growth.

The $738 billion for fiscal 2020 “is a good number; we also have two years,” he told reporters at an off-camera briefing at the Pentagon. “To the degree we can have predictability, to the degree we can avoid CRs, those things allow us to plan and make more efficient use of our dollars so I’m good with those numbers. No complaints.”  

Esper stopped by the the media bullpen just hours after entering the building for the first time as Defense Secretary. He was sworn in Tuesday night at the White House. 

His comments on the budget were echoed on Capitol Hill at a nomination hearing for Esper’s proposed deputy, David Norquist, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the stability of a two-year deal “has a value for the department and the workforce that should not be underestimated.”

Asked about previous estimates by Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford that the DoD will require 3- to 5-percent real budget growth per year to meet its modernization goals — a rate the budget deal does not reach — Norquist was sanguine: “I understand the importance of both security and solvency, and that not everyone gets everything they want.” 

The secretary’s first trip will be to Tampa, where’s he’ll meet with CENTCOM leaders to hammer out the details of Operation Sentinel, the proposed US effort to keep an eye on Iranian activity in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Sentinel doesn’t “necessarily mean that every US flagged ship going through the Strait has a destroyer right behind it,” he said, but having ships nearby to provide assistance will be key.

In response to a British tanker being detained by Iranian forces last week, several European countries have said they will move to protect shipping in the waterway, but British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said earlier this week that “it will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.” It’s unclear if Hunt was referring to Sentinel. 

Esper said any European deployments would be “complementary” to US effort, but stressed that the goal of both the US and Europe was the same — “deterring provocative actions from Iran.” Whatever shape the operation takes, “there’ll be clearly coordination between us all …I think it’s all helpful, it’s all sending the message we’re trying to send: freedom of navigation, and no provocative actions in the strait.”

While it comes to China, Esper didn’t go as far as then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who said on his first day that his top priority was “China, China, China.” But he did say “we need to be very concerned about Chinese technology getting into our systems or the systems of our allies. Huawei is the poster child right now for that.”

Esper met many of his NATO counterparts in Brussels last month, where he said the 5G and technology security issue was a big topic of discussion: “When I was in Brussels three weeks ago we talked about this amongst defense ministers about how do we make sure to preserve the integrity of our networks as an alliance.”

What do you think?