Top takeaways from POLITICO’s Defense Summit

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Here are four major takeaways:

1. A shutdown threat is nearly averted, but the Pentagon isn’t out of the woods

The House cleared a short-term stopgap Tuesday that sets up two different funding deadlines, but importantly keeps the government open into the new year. House Republicans needed help from Democrats to pass the measure, and many of the lawmakers at the summit said they’d support it to avoid a disastrous shutdown.

“This Democrat will vote for it,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). “No [continuing resolution] is ideal. There’s just no question that’s not a good way to budget, but … really time’s run out.”

Yet if the Senate agrees to the short-term patch, the Pentagon will have to operate under last year’s funding levels. That still isn’t sitting well with DOD officials, who can’t ramp up programs or start new ones until a full-year spending deal is in place.

“You want the Chinese to steal and adopt this model, because it’s a terrible model,” quipped Pentagon top weapons buyer William LaPlante.

2. Officers are leaving because of Tuberville’s blockade

Some senior officers have elected to retire rather than wait for a resolution to Tuberville’s nearly yearlong blockade of hundreds of military nominations in protest of Pentagon abortion travel policy.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth cited a two-star general who, while awaiting confirmation, submitted his retirement papers instead, citing concerns about how the job has impacted his family.

“I really have deep concerns about what my major lieutenant colonels and colonels are thinking about this,” Wormuth said. If the Senate doesn’t resolve the issue by the end of December, “there will be more of those,” she warned.

“We’ve had some people who’ve decided they’re not just going to wait around,” added Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. “They’re eligible to retire.”

Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) led off the summit just hours before the committee that oversees the chamber’s rules advanced his resolution to overcome the blockade by allowing hundreds of senior promotions to be confirmed en masse.

“This must end. And we’re moving to end it,” Reed said. But the measure will need the support of at least nine Republicans, and the senator cautioned he’s “never confident until it’s over.”

“If we had 65 Democrats, yeah, this would not have happened. It would’ve been done very quickly. But we have to get Republican support,” Reed said.

Other top leaders have had to defer their retirement without officers confirmed to replace them. Gen. Glen VanHerck, who spoke at the summit, was set to retire as the head of U.S. Northern Command months ago but has stayed on amid the impasse.

“I have seen service members who want to continue to serve now are questioning whether they want to serve because of the challenges that we’re facing … especially at the senior levels,” VanHerck said.

3. Israel and Ukraine aid are important, but different

The short-term funding patch that’s likely to head to President Joe Biden’s desk this week won’t include two major items: assistance for Ukraine in fighting Russia’s invasion and assistance for Israel in its war against Hamas.

While many lawmakers want to fund both Israel and Ukraine in a single emergency package, resupplying Ukraine is far more pressing, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said.

“The urgency for Ukraine frankly is greater than it is for Israel,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said.

Lawmakers have yet to act on Biden’s $106 billion supplemental request for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the border as a whole. The House has passed a bill that would provide over $14 billion in funding to assist Israel, while Republicans have so far balked at a Ukraine aid vote despite bipartisan support.

Smith said Tuesday that Congress must approve Ukraine aid “in weeks, not months,” and warned of the battlefield consequences of further inaction.

“Kyiv can hold on, but they would not be in as strong a position,” Smith said. “They will be in a very dangerous position if we don’t get resources to them reasonably soon.”

There are also concerns about whether the defense sector can meet the demand of supplying weapons to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan all at once. LaPlante said the “biggest tension” in ramping up industry is being able to fund those priorities, underscoring the need for Congress to clear a supplemental funding package.

He added that the biggest point of overlap between the two conflicts, and around the world, is air defense.

“That is going to be needed everywhere,” LaPlante said. “Defenses are a concern everywhere.”

4. Does the Pentagon have a “Buy American” problem?

The U.S. defense industry is on edge about a push by Biden and a growing chorus of lawmakers to build more U.S. military hardware in America. They’re concerned that the campaign could hamper the defense industry as it struggles to ramp up its production and cooperate with allies.

LaPlante downplayed concerns that the Pentagon is facing a choice between ramping up its production and building up the domestic industry. He argued demand for weapons globally — as the U.S. and scores of allies attempt to modernize and replenish their weapons sent to Ukraine — makes that a false choice.

“We need to do both at the same time and they’re actually not in conflict right now,” LaPlante said.

“We’re not at a point of saying ‘Should we do this production here or should we do it overseas?’” he added. “I hope to have that problem someday.”

Matt Berg, Joe Gould, Paul McLeary and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

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