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Service chiefs paint bleak picture ahead of defense budget

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 15, 2016

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain called the military service chiefs to Capitol Hill on Thursday to make the case for a bigger defense budget as lawmakers were poised to decide on whether to move ahead with a $18 billion hike.

In committee testimony, the chiefs of the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy complained about anemic budgets and painted bleak pictures of cash-strapped services with aging equipment, under-trained troops and a lack of preparations for war with a major world power such as Russia or China.

“The butcher’s bill is paid in blood, of American soldiers, for unready forces and we have a long history of that,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain, R-Ariz., said U.S. forces will need an additional $250 billion during the next five years just to fend off decline.

“We are lying to ourselves and the American people about the true cost of defending the nation,” said McCain, the chairman of the committee.

The hearing comes just as Congress prepares for the release of an annual defense policy bill called the National Defense Authorization Act, which is being drafted by a conference committee lead by McCain and his counterpart in the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

The compromise bill will show whether McCain and Thornberry have agreed to a controversial proposal that would boost defense spending by $18 billion to buy new ships and planes, increase training and give troops a bigger pay raise.

McCain, who failed to get Senate support for the higher spending earlier this year, has said a final bill could be ready for a vote as soon as next week. A decision to include the hike is likely to drawn strong resistance, especially among Democrats who are demanding any increases be accompanied by more spending on domestic programs.

On Thursday, McCain warned the military has been squeezed for years and still faces five years of budget spending caps under a debt reduction plan passed by Congress in 2011.

“What this means is that, over the next five years, our nation must come up with $250 billion just to pay for our current defense strategy and our current programs of record,” he said. “$250 billion just to do what we are planning to do right now, which I think many of us would agree is insufficient to meet our present — let alone our future — challenges.”

He called the money the true “hidden cost” of defending the country.

Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said the Navy has only been able to keep its deployed forces fully ready for a major war.

“These are ready for full spectrum operation but we are compromising the readiness of those ships and aircraft that we will have to surge to achieve victory in a large conflict,” Richardson said.

Also, eight years of budget fights, short-term funding solutions and recent caps on defense spending have “driven additional costs and time into almost everything we do,” he said.

Gen. Robert Neller, Marine Corps commandant, said tight budgets and a lack of equipment and training in the service’s aviation programs is falling “on the backs of sergeants and staff sergeants” who are trying to maintain aircraft amid tight budgets.

The Marine Corps recently made headlines for cannibalizing old and decommissioned aircraft to keep its fleet in the air. Thornberry has called it evidence of a military readiness crisis.

“Based on the current fiscal environment … we are all making trades and those trades require us to accept risks in certain areas,” Neller said.

The $18 billion proposed by Thornberry would fill some of the military’s needs. It remains controversial because the money would come out of the Islamic State war budget and would mean the war effort would run out of money in April.

Even if the House and Senate agree on adding the $18 billion into an NDAA bill, the overall federal budget remained uncertain Thursday due to deep divisions in Congress. The current budget expires at the end of September and lawmakers were discussing stop-gap legislation to maintain funding levels until at least after the presidential election.

The move would buy time for Congress to come up with a deal to placate Democrats who want more domestic spending as well as House budget hawks. But the temporary budgets, called continuing resolutions, are deeply disliked by the Pentagon because it does not provide for long-term planning.

“We’ve got some major programs and we’d like to have the certainty to tell the vendors we have the money there and push the costs down,” Neller said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., cast blame on the House in advance of the coming debate, saying lawmakers there are already pushing a stop-gap bill and putting off the passage of an annual defense budget to avoid confronting a bloc of conservative Republicans.

“Why do they do that? They don’t want to break the caps and tell the Right, ‘You all are crazy,’” Graham said.

The Freedom Caucus, which grew out of the Tea Party movement, has blocked efforts in the House to repeal the spending caps passed in 2011.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
 

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, gives an opening statement at the start of a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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