Budget request reveals Army still in transition mode

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

The Army’s budget request for 2016 looks like it contradicts the overall theme of the White House spending plan. Instead of attempting to break through sequestration caps by requesting more funds, overall it’s $2 billion less than what Congress passed for FY 2015. That’s a 2 percent drop, so it’s approximately the same top line, for a total of $147 billion.

But a dive into how the White House structured the budget reveals the Army wants to make a financial transition that reflects the reality of conflict it faces around the world today.

The overall reduction is mostly due to a smaller need for an Overseas Contingency Operation budget, as the Army finalizes its departure from Afghanistan. The branch requested $21 billion, which is 25 percent lower than this year. It’s also 80 percent lower than the OCO budget from 2010. That reduction complements a reduction in force size, which shrank by almost 120,000 soldiers in the past five years.

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The base budget is where the numbers balance out, which adds up to approximately $127 billion. Where the Army lost money in OCO funds, it wants to gain for its normal, day-to-day operations. That is where the budget reflects the overall goal of the Pentagon, which is requesting a sequestration-proof budget. The goal is to not only return to fiscal normalcy, but erase the damage caused by a three-year spending drought.

Even if Congress approves higher spending levels by tweaking the law and moving away from the Budget Control Act, it will take time for the department to recover and return to its full strength. That process usually takes at least 30 months, according to Maj. Gen. Thomas Horlander, director of the Army budget.

“That is why it is so important to have predictable and consistent funding levels,” said Horlander, in a Pentagon budget briefing. “If the Army would’ve had to operate at the sequestered levels in 2014 [instead of having a short relief through the Bipartisan Budget Act], this loss of readiness would’ve had a detrimental and cumulative impact on the Army’s ability to fully support the combatant commanders operations called for in the defense security strategy.”

The cumulative impact is what the Army is hoping to avoid with its latest budget request. In 2012 and 2013, Congress awarded the branch a budget that was $7 billion and $8 billion less than what President Barack Obama requested, respectively. That shortfall, according to Horlander, started the Army “on a downward readiness trend that was aggravated in 2012 when we were funded at the sequestered level governed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.”

It’s now a hole the White House is trying to fill.

Global conflict leads to global budget

The primary logic behind the Army’s budget request is planning for what the branch calls an increased “velocity of instability.” In today’s world, the Army argued, the majority of military combat isn’t centralized in a specific area or against a single group. Instead, the Army has to spread out and face multiple challenges all across the world. That ranges from exercises and forward basing in the Pacific region, to troop deployments to support the containment and treatment of the Ebola virus in Africa.

To that end, the spending plan called for a reorganization of combat brigades, and the authority to focus more on four specific operations and initiatives. Those include missions in Iraq, Syria, eastern Europe and the Arabian Gulf.

But at the same time, the Army is still trying to move forward with its plan to reduce its troop levels and shrink the civilian workforce.

“Given our projected end strength, FY 2016 will be the first year the Army does not use its OCO funding to pay for end strength of about 490,000 in active [duty] component, as it has done in previous years,” said Horlander. “It may strike you as unusual that we are requesting the same amount of funding in FY 2016 that was enacted in 2015, even though our end strength is 23,000 fewer soldiers … across all components. This is primarily attributed to compensation, cost of living and housing allowance adjustments.”

In other words, the Army wants to spend less on maintaining a high volume of people, and more on providing the people it has with better benefits. Those benefits would include a 1.3 percent pay raise for all uniformed and civilian employees, and new TRICARE options the Pentagon outlined in its overall budget plan.

“The Army is people,” said Horlander. “The Army’s total personnel costs [are] roughly about 61 percent of the budget.”

Also in the budget are some preliminary moves for base realignment and closure. While the concept still remains unpopular on Capitol Hill, the Army planned to let its construction budget keep absorbing some of the largest spending reductions in order to balance its top line.

“The FY 2016 Military Construction requests remain at historical low spending levels,” wrote the Pentagon in its monetary breakdown. But the branch is still trying to grow and evolve its infrastructure. The budget request included 32 military construction projects in 21 states and Germany, and the creation of the U.S. Army Cyber Headquarters at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

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