In the fiscal 2015 budget request, Defense Department officials said they needed $26 billion more than what current law allows, and $115 billion more in the following four years, in order to adequately perform their missions.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said bluntly Thursday that, much to his chagrin, that’s not going to happen.
Both of those requested plus-ups would go beyond the Defense spending limits lawmakers agreed to in the Ryan-Murray budget agreement only four months ago.
For 2015, the $26 billion plus-up is DoD’s share of the Opportunity, Security and Growth Initiative the Obama administration proposed as a mechanism to bypass the budget caps. The White House says it will release full details next week on offsetting spending reductions to pay for the package, but officials have not yet said where the money would come from in 2016 through 2019.
But McKeon, one of Capitol Hill’s staunchest advocates for robust defense budgets, opened his committee’s hearing of DoD’s most senior officials by saying it’s time to come to grips with the fact that Congress is not inclined to agree to any additional discretionary spending, whether for defense or domestic programs.
“We’re basically going to have the number that was agreed to earlier and signed into law, so I’m really not paying much attention to the $115 billion, and I’m not paying much attention to that $58 billion, because I think that’s in the realm of it would be wonderful, but it’s not going to happen,” he said. “I think we really have to live within something that I hate, and I’m sure you do, and I think most of the members of the committee do, but it is the law, and we’re stuck with it right now.”
Extra funding still not enough
Defense officials say even though the Ryan-Murray agreement did a lot to help solve DoD’s budget problems in 2014, the caps in current law over the next five years are simply too low.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said they would result in an Army and Marine Corps that are too small to conduct their missions, and training and equipping shortfalls across the military services.
“Our budget proposal supports our Defense strategy, defends this country and keeps our commitments to our people. However, these commitments would be seriously jeopardized by a return to sequestration level spending,” he said. “The result would be a military that could not fulfill its defense strategy, putting at risk America’s traditional role as guarantor of global security and, ultimately, our own security. This is not the military the President nor I wants, it isn’t the military that this committee or this Congress wants for America’s future, but it is the path we are on unless Congress does something to change the law.”
Under the budget DoD proposed this week, the department would get $496 billion for its base budget. Even if Congress agreed to the extra $26 billion beyond that, the final tally would still be $19 billion lower than what the Obama administration projected DoD would need for 2015 as of a year ago.
If McKeon is right, and Congress is on a path to keep the spending caps in place, the department faces an additional problem. In order to make its numbers work, the Pentagon is betting that Congress will green light a package of $96 billion in politically difficult cost saving measures, including health insurance reforms, weapons systems cancellations and base closures, plus another $30 billion worth of reductions in personnel spending.
But as Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, pointed out Thursday, Congress has shown through past performance that it is very likely to reject a significant proportion of those cutbacks.
“The important thing is going to be how this body chooses to approach what you guys have already approached,” Smith told the Pentagon witnesses. “You’ve had to put together a budget based on that top line law of the land that’s not going to change. You haven’t had the luxury of the fantasy that we all have, to imagine that somehow, we can oppose every cut, offer no alternative cuts, and complain about the size of the budget. You’ve made the decision on the A-10, you’ve made the decision on force structure, on mothballing 11 cruisers, on a lot of compensation issues, which are politically unpopular, and I hope, though I doubt this will be the case, that we don’t just beat you up over every isolated one of those decisions. But to simply say the administration is fecklessly cutting the budget and not offer an alternative is really going to spin us into the ground.”
Smith asked DoD officials to imagine a scenario in which Congress rejected at least $10 billion worth of the department’s own proposed spending reductions.
What $1 billion buys
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded with a breakdown of what just $1 billion buys in current dollars.
“If you were to whack out $10 billion, you could get a sense of where we would have to go,” he said. “On the modernization side, $1 billion buys 10 Joint Strike Fighters or two littoral combat ships, or 75 P-8 aircraft or 980 precision guided munitions. And on the readiness side, $1 billion pays for 12 F-16 squadrons to maintain readiness for a year, or three Army brigade combat teams readiness for a year. So we can tell you with great clarity what we would have to do if you don’t accept our recommendations. And then you’ll have to decide whether that is an even greater cost than the ones that we are proposing.”
Dempsey’s answer was in tune with the public messaging strategy the Pentagon has been trying to execute all week about its cost savings plans. They would result in slightly less generous benefits than troops and their families receive right now. But the department has responsibilities to service members that go beyond making sure they’re well-paid, including finding money to make sure they’re trained and ready for their jobs.
Asked whether the training cutbacks the military already has seen have put troops in greater danger than necessary, Dempsey answered in a single word: Yes.
“They have also forced us to make some bad investment decisions, because we haven’t had certainty, time or flexibility to do otherwise. And it has put us in a position where we’ve had to rob our readiness accounts in order to get the money we need under these budget caps in the short term,” Dempsey said. “The impact of that is that we are far less ready than we should be for the world that we confront.”