Departing GOP U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who lost his seat in Colorado's 6th Congressional District in November in a tide that swept Democrats into state office, puts it bluntly: “We can count on the fact that the defense budget is going to be cut.”
It may sound like sour grapes coming from a defeated incumbent, but Coffman, who led a top subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee before his ouster, has plenty of signs that point to 2019 being a tough year for hawks.
First is the return of sequestration, an Obama-era set of mandatory budget cuts that were approved under Republican pressure to balance the federal budget. The cuts were put on hold for three years but never repealed, putting more than $50 billion in defense spending on the chopping block before the new Congress takes its first vote.
Then, there are the statements of Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, a lawmaker from the Seattle suburbs and the incoming chairman of the House Armed Forces Committee, who has been a sharp critic of President Donald Trump’s plans even as he seeks to defend military missions and contractors in his district, most prominently Boeing.
Smith, through a spokesman, declined to answer questions but emailed a series of statements that reveal some of his priorities.
“We need to do aggressive oversight of the Pentagon’s budget and weapon programs to ensure that we are getting the best value for the taxpayer dollars we are spending,” Smith said in an email. “We know there is waste in the Pentagon’s budget. It’s our job to find it. We also need to make sure the Pentagon can be audited so we know how the money is being used.”
The tight-fisted approach comes as America faces increasing competition overseas as China and Russia pour money into new defense technology while each is taking a more aggressive military stance in its region.
Jerry Hendrix, a defense expert for the Telemus Group, a Virginia-based defense consulting firm, and a former Navy pilot, says the new arms race is as much about money as it is about cutting-edge technology.
“If you want to compete, that means billions of dollars,” he explained.
One of the big-ticket items in competition these days is space. America has long-enjoyed dominance in space, with spy satellites, navigation and communication systems that no rival could match.
Now, that edge in space faces new challenges with Russia and China developing systems that could target American satellites.
The issue set off alarm bells for the Obama administration, which established the National Space Defense Center in Colorado Springs to develop war plans to protect American satellites.
Trump has sought to take the space race further with a new Space Force, a new armed service that has intrigued his most ardent supporters and triggered chants for the new service at his frequent rallies.
Even with the GOP running things in the House, the space idea faced challenges. Now, with Smith at the helm, the Space Force could be strangled before birth.
Smith has opposed the Space Force as a costly policy blunder that he says could set back American efforts to regain dominance in orbit. But he also offered up a political explanation for why he would kill the new service branch.
“I am deeply offended by the way he [Trump] has politicized the issue of national security in space by asking his campaign donors to choose a logo for a ‘Space Force’ and treating it as his own pet project,” Smith wrote.
Coffman said that with Democrats in control of the House, the battle for a separate Space Force is over.
“Space Force, that’s dead in the water,” Coffman said. “It was already questionable, and the Democrats aren’t going to hand this president a victory.”
At a gathering of Heritage Foundation experts in Colorado Springs in late November, a key topic was whether the American public has any eagerness to continue Trump’s defense spending boom.
After years of declining defense budgets, Trump pushed a big boost in Pentagon spending, which will top $733 billion in 2019. That’s nearly $120 billion more in defense spending than the Pentagon budget from 2014.
But retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, a Heritage expert on defense spending, said the American people don’t even put boosting the defense budget in their top 10 priorities for the government.
“Everything else is taking America’s attention away from national defense,” Spoehr said. “Americans clearly feel there is no need to allocate more money to defense.”
While Americans may have little stomach for bigger Pentagon budgets, experts say they’re stuck with a Trump administration national defense strategy that requires them.
This year, the Trump administration unveiled a national strategy that focuses the Pentagon on Russia and China in what the administration calls a “great power competition.” That essentially is a slightly warmer, but equally expensive, version of the Cold War.
Spoehr said to meet the needs of the new strategy, Trump needs a much larger military, with a bigger Navy fleet, more Air Force squadrons and more ground forces in the Army.
“There are not enough forces to execute the national defense strategy,” he said.
Another piece of the new national defense strategy involves retooling America’s nuclear arsenal.
Plans are underway for new submarines and bombers to carry nuclear missiles and new intercontinental ballistic missiles for U.S. silos.
But plans for new nuclear warheads for those weapons have already triggered a bitter partisan debate.
“Focusing on President Trump’s new nuclear arms race would increase the risk of miscalculation, wreck the budget, and detract from our ability to invest in cyber, information operations, and our troops to counter serious threats to our security and efforts to undermine our democracy,” Smith wrote.
Coffman worries that the acrimony between Democrats and Republicans over Trump’s plans could lead to partisan warfare over defense spending.
Since the 9/11 attacks, with occasional flare-ups, defense committees have been relatively bipartisan.
Coffman -- whose defeat was celebrated on national television by Trump, despite the fact that they are both Republicans -- said the hyper-partisanship that dominated the election season will carry into the congressional session, spreading easily to defense committees.
“I think it will be partisan,” said Coffman, who earned a sarcastic “Too bad, Mike” comment from Trump after his loss for his not embracing some of the president’s policies or seeking his support.
But, apart from Coffman’s objection to the Space Force, Trump and Coffman were largely in step on defense issues.
“I worry about China, I worry about a resurgent Russia, and I worry about Iran,” Coffman said, ticking off three rival nations that mirror Trump’s priorities.
The Democrats don’t dispute growing global tension with rival nations. But Smith has additional priorities. Those include battling climate change, keeping transgender troops in uniform and curbing Trump’s use of active-duty troops to control America’s border with Mexico.