Budget blueprints alarm Joint Chiefs but 1 has a lifeline
By TOM PHILPOTT | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: March 19, 2015
Military leaders over the past week have sharpened warnings that force readiness is unraveling and it could plummet if Congress allows the next round of defense cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), with its sequestration tool, to take effect Oct. 1.
The House and Senate budget committees, in turn, issued their own warnings amid the rising threats to U.S. interests around the world: No, they are not negotiating an end to the BCA despite how deeply both Republicans and Democrats claim to despise the debt-reduction law.
The House committee, however, says it has a fresh gimmick to spare the military BCA cuts in fiscal 2016: Let basic defense spending fall, as planned, but add billions of dollars back to an account BCA can’t touch: the Department of Defense’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.
The Joint Chiefs aren’t happy with this but say national security is at stake with military force structure falling dangerously low, readiness rates still anemic from the last round of sequestration in 2013, and the services forced to rely on aging fleets of ships, submarines and aircraft.
The Obama administration didn’t proposed repeal of the BCA to protect defense spending in 2016 but its defense budget assumes Congress will find a way to lift that cap. It base defense budget of $534.3 billion is $36 billion more than the BCA permits, and it asks for $50.9 billion more to fund OCO.
The Joint Chiefs say the services desperately need that $36 billion which if lost to sequestration would cut the base defense budget by seven percent. Army, for example, already is reporting only 33 percent of brigades being combat ready versus 72 percent needed to meet national strategy requirements. Services would take another $2 billion out of hide next year if Congress rejects administration plans to curb compensation and close bases.
So far, Congress isn’t moved to end the BCA despite its “mindless” impact on defense budgets. Republicans still say they won’t accept any new deal on reducing the nation’s $18 trillion debt that would raise taxes or closing tax loopholes. President Obama and Democrats have withdrawn earlier ideas for trimming popular entitlements.
So BCA survives, even with Republicans now holding majorities in the Senate and the House. In a bygone era, Republicans were deemed guardians of defense budgets, particularly major weapon programs. A higher priority today is the campaign pledge not to raise taxes.
On Wednesday the Republican-led Senate Budget Committee released its plan to set spending levels across federal departments, keeping in place the BCA caps, including for defense. Earlier that day, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had warned that these same caps would devastate the military.
“Under sequestration, which is set to return in 197 days,” said Carter, “our nation will be less secure. [BCA] threatens our military’s readiness. It threatens the size of our war fighting forces, the capabilities of our air and naval fleets and ultimately the lives of our men and women in uniform.”
“And the great tragedy is that this corrosive damage to our national security,” Carter said, “is not a result of objective factors [such as] logic, reason. Instead sequester is purely the fallout of political gridlock.”
Republicans on the House Budget Committee released its budget blueprint just a day earlier. It too would keep the BCA caps, but this plan tries to neutralize the impact on defense spending in 2016 by adding more than $40 billion to the department’s OCO account.
Congress established OCO to keep wartime spending for Iraq and Afghanistan separate from other defense spending. Critics said it has camouflaged the real cost of those wars. It is to be phased out. But House Republicans now hope it can be used to shield defense from the brunt of the BCA while avoid having to compromise with Democrats on full BCA repeal.
Dempsey and the chiefs of staffs of Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, testified that more OCO dollars could ease the effect of sequestration but not ideally. OCO money can be used for training and other short-term readiness needs. It is less useful for weapons procurement and it can’t be used to build force structure because manpower costs must be budgeted annually.
“There’s a risk to not funding the base and putting it into OCO,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, Army chief of staff, testified. He warned that the services would need greater flexibility to spend OCO money. Otherwise, current rules are too strict and OCO “might not help us…[A]t the end of the year we [might] have money to give back because we were unable to spend it.”
“I would much rather have it in the base budget because sometime we’re going to have to shift it…and we’re just delaying that,” Odierno added.
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, also had concerns.
“Modernization is a major issue we face. OCO presents some problems because it’s hard to start a new program…looking at a one-year budget cycle.” OCO dollars are “not guaranteed over time and there are limits on what you can spend it on,” Welsh said.
Still, he suggested, OCO dollars are far better than no dollars.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the armed services committee, issued a statement that he will not support the Senate Budget Committee resolution to “set defense spending at sequestration levels. Doing so would be a recipe for disaster for America’s national security.”
McCain isn’t keen on the House plan either, saying Congress “can and should do better than use Overseas Contingency Operations funds to address this crisis of our own making.
“However, I refuse to ask the brave young Americans in our military to defend this nation with insufficient resources that would place their lives in unnecessary danger,” McCain wrote. “Using OCO to prevent this scenario is not my preference, but it is infinitely better than the current defense spending caps, and it could help to avert a looming disaster for our military.”
McCain hinted the House plan might be the best the military can hope for in 2016. Beyond that, he said “it will remain my highest priority as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to achieve a long-term, bipartisan solution that ends sequestration once and for all.”