'Robust Pay and Benefits': What DoD's Top Civilian Says About the Impending Budget

'Robust Pay and Benefits': What DoD's Top Civilian Says About the Impending Budget
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a press conference at the Pentagon Briefing Room in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia/Army)

This article by Hope Hodge Seck originally appeared on Military.com, the premier resource for the military and veteran community.


A new memo from Defense Secretary Mark Esper to the military secretaries and other top commanders lays out talking points as they testify on Capitol Hill regarding next year's budget priorities and needs.


Among them: activating the U.S. Space Force; advancing key technologies including hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and directed energy; and developing the Pentagon's Joint Warfighting Concept "to align personnel, equipment, training, and doctrine to win on any battlefield."


Dated Jan. 27, the memo, obtained by Military.com, is addressed to the civilian secretaries of the military departments, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, the under secretaries of defense and the heads of the Defense Department's 11 unified combatant commands.


"The FY 2021 budget supports irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy, which remains our guidepost and drives our decision-making. Progress along all lines of effort is sustained by adequate and timely funding from our partners in Congress," Esper wrote, saying that message is the overall theme he wants them to communicate in statements to legislative oversight committees.


[READ: Defense Secretary Mark Esper's Jan. 27 Memo]


The White House is expected to submit its budget request for fiscal 2021 to Congress on Feb. 10. That request, in keeping with a two-year budget deal secured last year, will include a $740 billion topline for defense spending, a slim increase from $738 billion enacted in fiscal 2020.


Esper's priorities, laid out in the memo, are grouped into four categories: strengthening military readiness and modernizing for a more lethal force; strengthening alliances and attracting new partners; reforming the DoD "for greater performance and accountability;" and supporting troops and military family members.


Under the last category, Esper said the 2021 request "advocates for robust pay and benefits packages essential to attracting and retaining the best personnel and warfighters." 


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It will also, he said, continue military housing reforms and oversight efforts. That comes in the wake of an explosive 2018 investigation revealing dangerous mold, vermin and squalid conditions in privatized military housing. The 2020 NDAA included a tenant bill of rights for military families.


Other efforts promoted in the request, Esper wrote, include affordable child care for military families, more professional development and education opportunities for troops, and support for military spouse education and professional licensure.


The request will resource Defense Department efforts to build new partnerships, Esper wrote, with an emphasis on growing alliances in the Indo-Pacific region -- long described by military brass as a DoD priority -- and "forming an enduring Middle East coalition." 


It will advance efforts, he added, to increase the sharing of cost burden across NATO and other allies, a continual point of emphasis for President Donald Trump. And, the memo said, it will promote "the enduring defeat of ISIS" and other extremist groups while positioning the Pentagon to prepare for great power competition from China and Russia, in accordance with the National Defense Strategy.


Esper again referred to his plan to divest legacy military systems in order to fund military innovation and new technology, a larger version of the Army "night court" effort he presided over while the service's secretary.


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Recapitalization of nuclear deterrence assets will be a priority, he said. The request also emphasizes the development of the Joint Warfighting Concept. Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, is a Pentagon-wide effort to break down service communication and technology barriers, allowing more systems to work together on the battlefield. Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Air Force Gen. John Hyten recently called JADC2 one of his highest priorities, Breaking Defense reported, noting that the effort is a key element of the broader joint concept still being finalized.


Earlier this month, Esper said hypersonic weapons would figure prominently in the fiscal 2021 defense budget, at levels even more aggressive than the nearly $5 billion included in this year's budget.


In support of Pentagon accountability, he wrote that the budget request would use the results of completed audit and DoD-wide reviews to direct reform efforts "as we actively seek ways to free up time, money and manpower to reinvest into our top priorities."


It will also, Esper said, "empower" reforms to what the Pentagon calls the 4th Estate: a cluster of 27 agencies overseen by the DoD. A "new governance architecture," he said, will help limit the growth of these agencies and offices "and identify more savings to put back into lethality."


In an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, Esper acknowledged that the task he had set for the Defense Department, particularly regarding cutbacks and limiting growth, is a difficult one. 


"I've been telling the Pentagon for two-and-a-half years now that our budgets are what they are," he said. "They're not going to get any better, and so we have to be much better stewards of the taxpayer's dollar."


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