Citing ‘weakened’ military, McCain details $430 billion plan to boost Defense budget

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday became the first senior political leader to sketch out a detailed vision for what Defense budgets might look like under a Republican-controlled government, arguing that military spending must grow by $430 billion from currently planned levels over the next five years in order to cauterize the “bleeding” he said the military was suffering because of recent budget cuts.

In a 33-page white paper, McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Defense spending should be immediately boosted to $640 billion in 2018, $91 billion more than allowed for that year under the current Budget Control Act caps and $54 billion, or 9 percent, more than the Obama Administration proposed.

From there, he said spending would need to continue to grow by another 4 percent in each of the following five years.

“It is not cheap,” McCain acknowledged. “The cost of further inaction, however, is worse … should we find ourselves in conflict, our nation will be forced to send young Americans into battle without sufficient training or equipment to fight a war that will take longer, be larger, cost more, and ultimately claim more American lives than it otherwise would have. That is the course we are on.”

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The funds in the McCain plan would be applied across a wide variety of Defense accounts to fund what he said should be a mix of high-and-low-end capabilities to deal with both large nation-state adversaries and less-sophisticated terror groups.

But he argued that much of the next five years would be spent digging out from “unpaid bills,” including underfunding of readiness programs and military base maintenance and overly rosy budget projections that assumed there would be no growth in the military’s personnel or operation and maintenance accounts.

McCain faulted both the Obama administration and Congress for what he said had been inadequate military spending, laying most of the blame on the Budget Control Act, which, as written, will continue to cap Defense outlays until 2023.

“By all measures, the BCA has failed,” he said. “A law intended to reduce federal spending has cut defense and other discretionary budgets for five years without decreasing the federal debt. … Rather than summon the courage to reverse a devastating blow to our military that was never supposed to happen, Washington has done what it does best: Nothing. It has resorted instead over the past five years to perverse coping mechanisms to try to live with sequestration.”

Besides repealing the BCA, McCain said Congress needs to end its abuse of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, a mechanism that’s been used to cushion the impact of the budget caps on DoD but that’s not available to domestic agencies. In 2017, DoD estimated $30 billion of the $58 billion in OCO dollars it requested actually belonged in the base budget.

McCain may have an ally in restricting the use of OCO as a sequestration workaround in Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Mulvaney has called the OCO account a “slush fund” and was one of four co-sponsors of an amendment to the 2017 Defense authorization bill that would have reined in its use for non-wartime spending (the amendment did not pass).

The President-elect has also called for a larger military, including an Army of 540,000 active-duty soldiers — 90,000 more than planned in the latest Obama budget — and a Marine Corps of 36 battalions, a dozen more than planned under the current drawdown from Iraq-Afghanistan war levels, but so far has not proposed specific budget numbers or program-specific spending increases, as the McCain proposal does.

Among the specific plus-ups in the McCain budget proposal:

  • Speeding up procurement of unmanned Navy systems, since McCain says it’s unrealistic to expect domestic shipyards to meet the Navy’s newly-announced target of 81 more manned ships by 2022 (McCain says 59 is achievable). The Navy would also see an increase of about 10,000 sailors.
  • Adding 40,000 soldiers to the active-duty Army, modernizing its munitions and investing in “emerging technologies, such as electronic warfare and unmanned ground vehicles” and upgrading legacy vehicles with more modern equipment.
  • Buying as many F-35s as the industrial base can produce to make up for a shortfall in Air Force strike aircraft, but moving beyond the program as quickly as possible in favor of longer-range and possibly unmanned systems. In the meantime, the plan calls for more spending on lower-end systems for military operations that don’t require a fifth-generation fighter. The Air Force would also grow by 20,000 airmen over the next five years.
  • A Marine Corps of between 194,000 and 200,000 troops, up from the current force of 182,000, and boosting maintenance funds because “so many aircraft are unusable that pilots are unable to meet training requirements.” The plan would also speed up the Marines’ purchases of aircraft, including the F-35.
  • More cyber tools for all of the military services and U.S. Cyber Command, which McCain said had devoted most of their funding to date on personnel costs to grow the Cyber Mission Force. “While many of these investments will be classified,” he said, “the development of a unified platform, a persistent cyber training environment and a cyber situational awareness and battle management system are the first foundational cyber capabilities that must be prioritized and continuously refreshed to ensure that our capabilities are responsive to the continuously changing cyber battlefield.”

McCain also insisted that his budget proposal should not be seen as a blank check for the Defense Department, and said his committee would continue to press for acquisition reforms and to reduce what he views as unneeded and counterproductive bureaucracy in the Pentagon’s business processes.

“At the same time, rebuilding our military must be done smartly,” he said. “The joint force must be bigger, but more importantly, it must be more capable. Our adversaries are modernizing their militaries to exploit our vulnerabilities. If all we do is buy more of the same, it is not only a bad investment, it is dangerous. We must rethink how our military projects power, invest in new capabilities and devise new ways of operating.”

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