OPINION: America Must Prioritize Defense, Shutdown or Not

President Donald Trump just put a temporary end to what amounted to, by far, the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States. With Republicans and Democrats waiting for the other to blink first, it doesn’t appear that agreement is anywhere on the horizon. While both sides are locked in a game of chicken, real concerns are beginning to emerge regarding fundamental threats to America’s national security.

There’s no doubt that, due to the shutdown, other countries have taken notice of America’s current fiscal incapacities and are maneuvering to take advantage. The United States’ aerospace industry is particularly vulnerable given that the shutdown caused most NASA employees to be sent home without pay.

Unsurprisingly, China didn’t miss this opportunity to exert its growing influence over the international aerospace community.

At the beginning of the shutdown, on January 3, 2019, China became the first country to land a rover on the dark side of the moon. While certainly a monumental feat, China doesn’t plan on stopping at just one rover.

In the coming decade, China plans to build an orbiting space station and, following that, intends to put the first man on the moon since 1972. It’s no wonder why many are now saying that China is set to overtake the United States in the new space race.

America can’t let that happen. While our funding options are somewhat limited, the government does have the capability to make specific federal programs exempt from the effects of future shutdowns, like the one that may resume again in a few short weeks. Doing so would not be unprecedented.

Last December, for example, Washington placed a fuel tank for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the exceptions list. A program that aims to provide unprecedented spaceflight possibilities, NASA’s SLS is an advanced launch vehicle that will allow for exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.

Once SLS is completed, it will be the most powerful rocket in U.S. history and, perhaps just as important, an expression of America’s aerospace dominance.

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Handout/Reuters

SLS is perhaps the most important tool in the United States’ current aerospace strategy, so while it was the correct strategic decision to protect this aspect of the project, it’s only a start. The shutdown that Trump recently paused greatly affected SLS’s rocket testing.

Beyond SLS, though, numerous essential aerospace and defense contractors were left out in the cold during this past government shutdown, unable to receive funding for their vital services. The effects of this have been severe. For example, Tethers Unlimited had to let 20 percent of its workforce go due to it not receiving payment. SpaceX also laid off 10 percent of its employees to become leaner.

We must place all of these essential aerospace contractors on future shutdown exemption lists. That way, contractors can continue ensuring that the U.S. projects strength to China even while Republicans and Democrats clash over the shutdown and immigration and border security.

After all, 2019 is projected to be an incredible year for space exploration. With the influx of new competition into the aerospace industry and the prospect of greater technological advancement than ever before, the future of space exploration is bright. This upcoming year, America can reassert its dominant position in the space race and put China and the rest of the world on notice.

But to do that, the United States can’t let itself be hobbled by partisan squabbles. We must prioritize our aerospace industry even during the government shutdown.

If Washington fails to exempt our aerospace and defense contractors from the effects of government shutdowns, the consequences could be severe. Many of these companies that the U.S. utilizes are still newbies with fragile bottom lines.

The shutdown is likely to have a devastating impact on these businesses, many of which live and die by the government’s ability to pay its obligations. If these companies go belly-up, it could jeopardize our nation’s entire defense strategy and crush our potential for innovation.

Congress and the president can provide these companies with relief from a shutdown without sacrificing their political goals. Elected officials must place these aerospace and defense businesses on the exemptions list. Doing so would allow them to save face politically while also preserving our national security and the future of America’s space program.

Shak Hill is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and former combat pilot. Shak owns Guiding Light University, where his mission is to Financially Empower Women. He is keenly interested in politics and ran for the Republican nomination for Congress in Virginia. 

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. The views and opinions expressed by the author are those of the writer and do not reflect the editorial opinion of IJR.

Published in IJR Red