In memos, Marine commandant says deploying troops to border poses 'unacceptable risk' to readiness
By MOLLY O’TOOLE | Los Angeles Times | Published: March 21, 2019
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The commandant of the Marines has warned the Pentagon that deployments to the southwest border and funding transfers under the president’s emergency declaration, among other unexpected demands, have posed “unacceptable risk to Marine Corps combat readiness and solvency.”
In two internal memos, Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller said the “unplanned/unbudgeted” deployment along the border that President Donald Trump ordered last fall, and shifts of other funds to support border security, had forced him to cancel or reduce planned military training in at least five countries, and delay urgent repairs at bases.
The border deployment and funding transfers, as well as recovery costs from Hurricanes Florence and Michael, new housing allowances and civilian pay raises, are taking a toll on combat readiness, Neller wrote to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
The Los Angeles Times obtained copies of the memos, dated March 18 and March 19.
Neller, a four-star general, said because of the problems, Marines will not participate in planned training exercises in Indonesia, Scotland and Mongolia, and will reduce their participation in joint exercises with Australia and South Korea.
Marines “rely on the hard, realistic training” of the exercises “to develop the individual and collective skills necessary to prepare for high-end combat,” Neller said.
He complained about canceling or shrinking the Marines’ participation “at a time where we are attempting to double down on strengthening alliances and attracting new partners.”
While the armed services chiefs often warn of budget shortfalls, independent experts who reviewed Neller’s memos described the language as unusually strong, in particular because it cites the president’s highest-profile political priorities.
“It’s pretty unusual for the commandant to be raising concerns that … a top political priority for the president is undermining the ability of the Marine Corps to do the training they need,” said Mandy Smithberger, a defense expert at the Project for Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent watchdog group.
“It looks like from Commandant Neller’s perspective, he does think these policies are undermining readiness,” she added.
“This is a pretty strongly worded memo,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Hurricane recovery efforts, increases in civilian pay and the military housing allowance are probably the biggest factors in the budget shortfall, he added.
“The incremental cost of the border deployment is likely small compared to these other factors,” he said. “It sounds like there are some bureaucratic politics at work here.”
The border deployment is adding to the strain after hurricanes severely damaged Marine Corps facilities and housing in North Carolina and Georgia, Neller wrote.
Citing limits on his ability to transfer money because of the planned reprogramming under the border emergency, Neller said the Marines already are short $1.3 billion for recovery operations this year with another hurricane season approaching.
“The hurricane season is only three months away,” Neller wrote, “and we have Marines, Sailors, and civilians working in compromised structures.”
Neller’s red flag memos come as the White House and Defense Department have sought to reassure wary lawmakers that the military has not been negatively affected by the deployment to the border of roughly 6,000 service members from the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy since October, shortly before the midterm elections, and the president’s declaration of a national emergency there last month.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Wednesday, Trump visited an Army tank plant in Lima, Ohio, with Shanahan in tow. He appeared on stage flanked by tanks that the Pentagon has said it doesn’t want, and touted budget boosts for the military, which he said “very soon will be stronger than it ever was.”
The White House has asked Congress to appropriate $718 billion for the Pentagon in 2020, including $9 billion for hurricane relief, border security and backfilling military construction projects whose funding could be raided under the national emergency Trump declared on Feb. 15.
“The way they are using military construction as a slush fund and abusing Overseas Contingency Operations to unprecedented levels is really undermining the credibility of the department,” Smithberger said, referring to a separate account known as OCO that’s intended for ongoing wars.
Members of Congress have pressed to learn which military construction projects would be deferred or canceled to divert money that could be used to build Trump’s long-promised border wall under the emergency.
On Monday, the Pentagon sent Congress a list of more than 400 military construction projects around the country and worldwide that could be affected.
The 21-page document cites more than $12.8 billion in projects that could be delayed or canceled under the emergency, including 31 projects totaling $1.1 billion in California.
Congressional approval of the White House budget request and backfill is far from assured, given the recent border funding fight that led to a 35-day partial government shutdown, and bipartisan majority votes in both chambers to block Trump’s use of executive action to get around the congressional appropriations process. Trump last week vetoed the resolution.
Shanahan and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify on the administration’s budget request before the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday.
Trump deployed troops to the southwest border last fall just before the midterm election, raising concerns he was using the military for political purposes. He later expanded the deployment to roughly 6,000 troops, and extended their stay through September.
Border operations cost about $230 million by the end of January, according to the Pentagon. The cost could grow to about $850 million this year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.