Members of the National Commission on the Future of the Army prodded Congress to ween off its use of emergency funds to pay for essential Army programs.
The increased use of the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account to fund readiness and modernization is creating unpredictability for the Army’s budget, Robert Hale, Future Army commissioner and former Defense Department comptroller, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces Feb. 10.
The remarks come as the fiscal 2017 budget, released Tuesday, provides for a minimum of $59 billion in OCO funding.
“I want to underscore the need for predictable budgets, this turmoil is just eating the time of senior leaders,” Hale said alongside the commission’s chair Carter Ham.
OCO has been a savior and a curse for DoD since it was created in the early 2000s. The fund was originally established for emergency war spending after the Sept. 11 attacks. But, when sequestration became the law-of-the-land Congress pocketed extra funds for DoD into OCO since it was not subject to the caps imposed by the law.
Since then, OCO has taken on funds for traditional programs like operations and maintenance spending.
“They are putting more and more base budget funding into the OCO budget,” Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Federal News Radio.
There is no planning for OCO spending since it’s for emergency situations, leaving DoD and the services in the dark as to what kind of funding they may get in future budgets.
“We don’t have a five-year OCO plan, the OCO funding only comes out one year at a time. There’s this built in assumption that some level of OCO funding will continue in the future and it will be used for some of these base budget activities, but we’re not getting that five-year funding plan,” Harrison said.
Last year’s budget deal only exacerbated the problem when, for the first time, it required an OCO floor of about $59 billion. Meaning the budget had to have at least $59 billion in OCO spending. When Congress works on the defense authorization and appropriations bills for 2017, it may add even more money into the OCO account, further darkening foresight into future plans.
That spells trouble for the Army, which is trying to modernize and train its force, while attempting to hold on to a 980,000 total force.
Ham reiterated to lawmakers the Army’s problems were not just in its shrinking size, but also in resources and capacity.
The Future of the Army Commission, which released its report last month, recommended keeping Army funding at 2016 levels. Due to the budget deal, those funding levels are slightly less than recommended and, if sequestration returns in 2018, the levels could drop even further.
The congressionally appointed panel also told Congress the Army should add specific guidance on goals for future use of multicomponent units that blend active duty and other types of troops. The commission also wanted the Army to create a substantial pilot program to test multicomponent units on aviation units.
While DoD and the Army are taking the commission’s recommendations into consideration, the report has not been received particularly well by analysts.
The commission “had the opportunity of a generation to define not only why you have an Army, but what you want it to do and therefore what it has to look like and … they didn’t do it,” said Dan Goure, vice president at the Lexington Institute. “They missed a huge opportunity.”
One of experts’ biggest concerns is the commission’s compliance with a floor of 450,000 active duty troops.
The commission responded saying it had specific budgetary parameters to take into account when writing the recommendations.
“Our authorization [was] to look at anticipated future resources and current resources versus an acceptable risk,” Future of the Army Commission Vice Chairman Thomas Lamont told Federal News Radio. “Yeah, we’re worried, but given the resources we had, we don’t see those [troop] numbers going up. We don’t have the money to increase the number of our soldiers.”