Fanning: No political path in Congress for military buildup

The former Army secretary says there's too much bickering in Congress to actually grow the military, but readiness holes need to be plugged first anyways.

President Donald Trump talked a big game about building up the military on the campaign trail, but the Army’s last Senate-confirmed secretary says the political appetite for a bigger military budget just isn’t there.

In one of his first interviews after leaving the public sector, former Army Secretary Eric Fanning said the political parties internally, let alone Republicans and Democrats, are too divided to come to an agreement on a much larger military budget.

“I think a lot of people expected the budgets were going to go up pretty substantially and there were a number of Republicans who immediately said, ‘Where do you think that money’s coming from?’ Neither party’s caucus is all that aligned or cohesive right now, and there are quite a few people’s priority in Congress right now to reduce government spending,” Fanning said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “I don’t see the consensus necessary to increase defense spending in any sizeable way.”

The Trump administration may have gotten that message judging by the 2018 budget request released in May.

The budget asked for $575 billion in base spending and $640 billion with emergency war funding. That comes out to about 3 percent more than what President Barack Obama wanted for 2018.

The 2018 budget instead focuses on building readiness, something Fanning thinks is a good idea.

“What I look for is not exacerbating the problems we have in the military by growing it without the proper resources, but filling the holes that are already inside the military,” Fanning said. “From the Army’s perspective, it’s not just resources, it’s time. You grow the Army too quickly and you start lowering standards about who you bring in.”

Reporter Scott Maucione discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

The Trump administration may be rolling back some of its campaign trail promises for a bigger military. Acting Defense Department Comptroller John Roth said the 2019 budget will be used to sustain the readiness gains made in 2017 and 2018, not to build the force.

That comes at the ire of House and Senate Armed Services committee chairmen Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), respectively, who called for a $640 billion base budget.

But Fanning just doesn’t think it will happen.

“I don’t see how there’s the political will right now, with everything that’s going on and everything that’s frankly not going on in Congress, to find how you are going to build that consensus to increase the budget, so I don’t see huge changes … but the increases that I do see can go a long way in solving a lot of problems the military is facing,” Fanning said.

Fanning said the 2018 budget numbers were encouraging for the Army, stating in the past the services have not been budgeted for appropriately.

If the Army wants to grow the readiness, holes need to be plugged, which Fanning said the 2018 budget helps to do.

“The numbers I’ve seen, for what they want to grow the Army to, don’t have the requisite resourcing to go with it, so we’d actually be spending less per soldier potentially in the future. I was encouraged to see that the budget that went to the Hill tried to invest a lot of that extra money inside the Army the size that it was. There are holes inside the Army that need to be fixed. These installations expenses, modernization, readiness, munitions go down the pipe before you actually grow the Army,” Fanning said.

The budget gives almost $10 billion in total to DoD for military construction, a $2 billion increase. It leaves facilities modernization funding pretty much the same.

“This is an area where when you get constrained budgets and you have lower top-lines, you tend to take risk and you tend to defer. You’re going to wait to fix that window until the next year as long as the roof’s not leaking,” Roth said. “We’ve had pretty anemic military construction facilities budgets over the last four-or-five years, but there’s a readiness nexus with this. So we’re investing in operational and training facilities and maintenance and production facilities in particular.”

The Army was appropriated $3.4 billion for facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization in 2017.

Of course, Congress still needs to pass the budget request before any money is actually appropriated.

This budget has an extra hurdle, considering sequestration is set to return. Congress must figure out a way to increase the budget caps and pass a budget if it wants to fund to DoD’s requested levels.

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