The Pentagon already has made abundantly clear that it doesn’t believe sequestration-level budgets will provide enough money to run an effective military. But now that DoD has taken on new missions during the past year, the Pentagon’s funding request likely will mean an even bigger breach of the budget caps than it had previously planned.
In the five-year budget plan it rolled out earlier this year, the Defense Department projected that it would ask Congress for $535 billion in its base budget for 2016 — $35 billion more than what’s allowed for that year under the caps set three years ago by the Budget Control Act.
But a lot has changed since then, said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Troops suddenly are back in Iraq. DoD is responding to Ebola in west Africa, and the military is rotating more forces through U.S. European Command in response to recent events in Ukraine.
So, Dempsey said, the department probably is going to need extra funds over and above the extra $35 billion it already had been contemplating.
“It’s clear to me that we need additional top-line funds for our emerging and new requirements. Six months ago, we weren’t talking about a European Reassurance Initiative, or spending 18 months in Africa, or a three- or four-year campaign in the Middle East,” Dempsey told a military conference hosted by Defense One. “The secretary of Defense also rolled out a new nuclear posture review that has a price tag, we’ve got some gaps to fill in space, there’s just some new requirements.”
The Office of Management and Budget hasn’t yet delivered 2016 budget guidance to agencies, but in a separate interview with Bloomberg News, Mike McCord, DoD’s comptroller, also signaled that the Pentagon likely will submit a budget request for 2016 that violates the budget caps for a second year in a row.
“I would be really surprised if we changed our position at this point and say, ‘Yes, we’ll submit a sequester-level budget and just call it a day,'” McCord said.
Running cuts up the flagpole, again
Even though it’s been doing so without much success for the past three years, Dempsey said the Pentagon needs to continue making the case that the budget caps are simply too low to fund the missions the department is being asked to perform.
“I’ve run out of adjectives to describe this budgetary uncertainty, the lack of flexibility that keeps me from deciding where to put the money and the fact that we’re doing this one year at a time,” Dempsey said. “I can’t describe to you the adverse effect that’s having on the military and therefore the security of the nation. We’ve got to get over it.”
And despite the fact that Congress has said no to most of DoD’s proposals to cut costs for several consecutive years, including health insurance premium increases, weapons system retirements and base closures, Dempsey said the department likely will run many of those same requests up the flagpole in its 2016 request.
“If you’re going to make the military sustainable, you’ve got to wring it out and make it as efficient as you can, and are there still efficiencies to be found out there? Of course there are,” Dempsey said. “Depending on which service you’re talking about, manpower consumes 52 percent of the budget. So you’ve got to find a way to at least slow the growth in those manpower costs. And we’re going to propose those again, because it’s the right thing to do.”
The changes in world events over the past year also are causing the Army to reexamine its previous analyses surrounding the acceptable size of its force, said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff.
The Defense strategic guidance President Barack Obama issued in 2012 included an assumption that the Army would retain a force of 490,000 soldiers after the drawdown from Afghanistan. After the first budget cuts that accompanied sequestration, planners concluded they could get by with a force of 440,000- 450,000, though they would be assuming “increased risk.”
But Odierno said he plans to tell Congress that he now believes that the smaller force is too small, given recent events.
“The world has changed a bit since we made those decisions,” he said. “We had made assumptions that we wouldn’t be using Army forces in Europe the way we used to, we assumed we wouldn’t be going back into Iraq, and here we are worried about Russia again. So I think we need to be very careful and mindful about the decisions we’re making. I think it’s time to have a real discussion with Congress about what we think we’re going to be doing over the next five or 10 years. When we made our earlier decisions, we believed that the Army’s use would go down. Today, we’re just about down to our final numbers in Afghanistan, but I still have 55,000 soldiers deployed around the world and another 80,000 stationed in 150 countries around the world. So the commitments have actually gone up from last year.”
A better messaging strategy needed
The budget increases DoD will request don’t take into account its overseas contingency operations account, which is exempt from the sequestration caps. Last week, the Obama administration requested a supplemental $5 billion for OCO during 2015 to handle the new operations in Iraq, and it’s likely that the Pentagon would seek some additional OCO money in 2016 to handle the fight against the Islamic State.
But even with the new military operations DoD has taken on over the past year, it’s far from clear that Congress will be receptive to the message that the military needs extra funding and that sequestration should be abolished.
Dempsey said that means DoD needs find a way to recalibrate its messaging strategy.
“I’ll accept some of the responsibility here for failing, on two counts,” Dempsey said. “In my first year or two, we would go to Capitol Hill and we’d try to articulate risk: the risk we are taking because of our inability to build a sustainable budget over time. But I swung and missed — nobody really took notice that I was talking about risk. So last year, we said, ‘Well, that didn’t work, maybe we should talk about readiness instead. Maybe we can articulate the fact that only so many brigade combat teams, amphibious ready groups, fighter squadrons and ships are ready to fight.’ And everybody said, ‘Huh, that’s interesting,’ so I swung and missed again. So frankly, I’m trying to decide for myself how to adapt my narrative to explain to the American people that there are two things happening that they ought to take interest in. One is that we’re going to be able to provide fewer options, and the other is the negative effect on the all-volunteer force.”