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Pentagon to divert almost $4 billion to support building more southern border wall

U.S. military personnel help fortify a border barrier in Sasabe, Arizona, on Feb. 7, 2019.

TAWANNA STARK/U.S. ARMY

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 13, 2020

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Thursday that it is diverting up to $3.8 billion in the Defense Department budget, including money for aircraft, ships and drones, to build another 177 miles of barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved the transfer of the money from Defense Department operations and maintenance funds to its own counter-drug fund to be used to build 30-foot, bollard-style barriers on federally controlled land along the Mexico border with California, Arizona and Texas.

“The border-barrier construction support that DoD will provide to [the Department of Homeland Security] this year will allow DHS to fulfill [President Donald Trump’s] border security policy promise,” Bob Salesses, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Homeland and Defense Integration, told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.

Last February, Trump declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border and directed the use of military construction funds as well as counter-narcotic funding to pay for border wall construction. The diverted $6.1 billion last year was taken from military construction and counter-drug funds and used to fund the border wall.

On Thursday, Trump extended the emergency declaration for another year. 

The assistance request from the Department of Homeland Security approved Thursday will be funded by the Defense Department Title 284 funds, which is used for countering drug activities by building roads and barrier fences and installing lighting in drug smuggling corridors along the border.

The fund now has between $600 million and $800 million to be used for counter-drug activity. The Pentagon will move $3.8 billion into that account to be used for building the border wall.

Funding border wall construction is “a higher priority” than the items for which the money was originally approved, Salesses said.

“The transfer of the funds will not adversely affect the military preparedness of the United States,” he said.

Funding from operations and maintenance will come from accounts that include aircraft, shipbuilding and equipment for the National Guard and reserves.

The $3.8 billion in funds is amassed from two parts. The first part has the Pentagon transferring about $2.2 billion from 2020 appropriated funds under their general transfer authority, according to Pentagon documents. This money would have been used to buy two F-35B Lightning II, two MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and one P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft. This money also includes $650 million for Landing Helicopter Assault ship funding and two C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft.

The second part transfers about $1.6 billion from 2020 Overseas Contingency Operations Defense appropriations funds under the special transfer authority. The Pentagon is transferring money that would have been used for eight MQ-9 Reaper drones, two more C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, and $1.3 billion in “miscellaneous” National Guard and reserves equipment.

Some members of Congress have already voiced their outrage about the Pentagon’s decision to divert money that Congress approved for another purpose.

“[This] undermines the principle of civilian control of the military and is in violation of the separation of powers within the Constitution,” Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a prepared statement Thursday. “To be clear, I continue to believe that the situation on our southern border represents a national security challenge for our country. … The wall should be funded, but the funding must come through the Department of Homeland Security rather than diverting critical military resources that are needed and in law.”

Another senior member of the House Armed Services Committee said its members would “do everything in our power to push back against this irresponsible and irrational decision by the president.” 

“It’s grossly irresponsible of President Trump to raid money that is necessary to support and defend our nation for his vanity wall,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee’s subpanel on readiness, said in a prepared statement Thursday. “President Trump has already raided over $6 billion in critical defense funds to pay for his wall — this new raid worsens the already dangerous problems he’s created for our military and national security.”

Last year, up to $3.6 billion in unobligated military construction funds were authorized by Trump’s emergency declaration to be used for the border wall and have been directed toward 11 barrier projects totaling 175 miles of fencing to be built in Texas, Arizona and California. The Pentagon diverted the money from 127 planned construction projects worldwide.

Money from this recent request will be used to build 177 miles of border barriers on federal land in six of the nine Customs and Border Patrol sectors: San Diego and El Centro in California, Yuma and Tucson in Arizona, and El Paso and Del Rio in Texas.

The project is expected to be completed in 12 to 24 months, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the contracts for building the barrier, Salesses said. There are now about 5,000 service members deployed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kenney.Caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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