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What Happens To The Military If The Government Shuts Down

Jan 19, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 11:33 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we just heard, whatever happens with this midnight deadline on a government shutdown, we know this - all active duty military will carry on normal duty status. That's according to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But this morning Mattis, in a speech at Johns Hopkins University, also said this.

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JIM MATTIS: We need a budget and we need budget predictability if we're to sustain our military's primacy.

KELLY: Budget predictability. Well, let's unpack how budget predictability or the current lack thereof affects the military. We've got on the line Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy under President Obama. Michele Flournoy, good to speak with you again.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Good to speak with you.

KELLY: I imagine you lived through a shutdown or two in your years at the Pentagon. Can you tell me how that unfolded?

FLOURNOY: Well, there were several times when we had to plan for a shutdown and once when it actually occurred. And the striking thing is how much senior leader time, attention, bandwidth was diverted from the main mission of the department, which at the time was running operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to actually planning for this massive disruption in the normal day-to-day business of the department. It had very bad implications or impacts on morale of the - particularly the civilian workforce that was furloughed. And it was just highly disruptive and highly distracting from the main mission.

KELLY: Well, let me ask what your response is when you hear this. I mean, President Trump has tweeted - now I'm going to quote - "a government shutdown will be devastating to our military," end quote. Will it?

FLOURNOY: So the shutdown itself would not be devastating to the U.S. military. But what is devastating is what Secretary Mattis referred to, which is the lack of a regular budget. So when you live from continuing resolution to continuing resolution you can't plan for the long term. You can't start new programs. You can't make the necessary investments in modernization, in future capabilities. You can't necessarily plan and sustain the kind of investment in readiness, operations and maintenance and repairs. We haven't had regular budgets for quite some time. And that is what's really hurting the military.

KELLY: What type programs, what type contracts, what type commitments - when you talk about maintaining military readiness and advancing that readiness, what type things aren't happening?

FLOURNOY: So in all of the services you've seen a lot of maintenance deferred. And you can do that as a very short-term stopgap measure. But to do it over years and years and years, it now means that you have Army brigades that haven't been to the required training to be ready. It means that you have Air Force pilots who haven't been able to fly the number of hours to remain proficient. You may not have the munitions stockpile you need to actually do the exercises or to do the operations that you might need to do. It means - it frankly, I think, was a contributing factor to the kinds of collisions that we've seen in the Pacific fleet for the Navy.

KELLY: In what way, if I could stop you there for a second?

FLOURNOY: There's an investigation underway, but the early indications suggest that in order to send ships out on deployment some certifications were not necessarily made, some training was cut short or skipped. And so you actually had a degradation in the readiness of the sailors to actually be driving the ships safely.

KELLY: Are you talking to old friends, former colleagues at the Pentagon this week? What are you hearing?

FLOURNOY: I'm hearing a lot of frustration because, you know, Secretary Mattis today unveiled a new defense strategy that highlighted the fact that we are re-entering an era of great power competition. We have a resurgent Russia that's been very aggressive in Ukraine and on its borders and through, you know, information campaigns here and in Europe. We have a rising China that has a different view of what the order should be in Asia. Being able to protect our vital interests and our allies will require significant investment in our military for the future. And to do that, we have to have sort of regular order and discipline in a budgeting process. And it's the absence of that that hurts us.

KELLY: Michele Flournoy is former undersecretary of defense. She is currently co-founder at WestExec. That is a strategic advisory firm. Thanks again.

FLOURNOY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYPNOTIC BRASS ENSEMBLE'S "BALLICKI BONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.