The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that his version of the defense budget bill for fiscal 2017 would fund overseas military activities for only half a year to allocate more money to buy new equipment and maintain aging gear and facilities.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, spoke to reporters ahead of a second day of committee mark-ups for the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, annual legislation that sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
His own draft of the bill, set to be released early next week following the full committee mark-up, would preserve the overall budget topline of $610 billion from President Barack Obama's defense budget request, but bulk up base budget spending to $574 billion, with an additional $18 billion pulled from overseas contingency operations funds.
This pot of money, known as OCO, funds ongoing combat operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, sustainment efforts in Afghanistan, and efforts abroad including the European Reassurance Initiative, a force presence effort and safeguard against Russian aggression for which Obama has asked to quadruple funding next year.
Ultimately, Thornberry said, the remaining war budget will fund planned overseas activity until about next April, rather than through the end of the fiscal year in September as planned.The money had been reallocated in the mark-up, the congressman said, because of urgent concerns for military readiness, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps.
"As we have dug into what is happening with our force, I'll just say in the past week or two, I've had two people say that the force is beginning to fracture like it did in the late ‘70s," he said. "We're losing pilots, aircraft maintainers. That means the maintainers who are left are stretched thinner and thinner, working harder and harder, shifting from squadron to squadron, whichever one's about to deploy."
In recent tours of bases, he said, he had seen an F/A-18 that had flown in the 1986 air strikes on Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and spoken to pilots who were completing fewer than half the flight hours they needed for proficiency.
Shortfalls like this, he said, were to blame for an uptick in major accidents, known as Class A mishaps, in which significant equipment damage or loss of life occurs, that both the Army and the Marine Corps have experienced.
"There is more stress on the force than I think most of us have recognized," he said. "And if I can leave you with one point that is the strongest for me, it is absolutely wrong to send service members out on missions for which they are not adequately prepared or supported."
It remains unclear how much money is expected to be redirected into operations and maintenance from the $18 billion.
Emerging subcommittee drafts of the bill show significant funding increases for new purchases. The seapower and projection forces subcommittee of House Armed Services added $2.3 billion in shipbuilding funds, enough to build three additional ships, and paid for new heavy-lift aircraft for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.
The additional money will also prevent end strength cuts to the Army and fund modest force increases for the Air Force and Marine Corps, he said. All additions to the base budget, he added, were taken from the services' unfunded priorities lists, in which they highlight priorities not included in the budget request.
While the $18 billion does include money for operations and maintenance and facilities, Thornberry said he believed procurement was the real way out of the readiness pit.
"I don't care how many more people or more money you put into maintenance, you're going to have a harder and harder time keeping that 1980s F-18 flying, so the real answer is to replace it with an F-35," he said. "Service by service, component by component."
As far as what will happen when war funding runs out next April, Thornberry said that will be a problem for the next administration to deal with after a new president takes office in January.
"Maybe the new president decides it's hopeless against ISIS or whatever and decides to reduce those OCO-funded activities, in which case, you don't need as much money," he said. "Maybe the new president says President Obama got it just right, maybe new president said he's not doing enough. In that case, the new president can ask for supplemental funding to finish out the fiscal year at whatever level he or she thinks is appropriate."
Asked if this partial budget solution was creating a future fiscal cliff in the active fight against the Islamic State, Thornberry cast it instead as an opportunity for the next administration to reframe policy.
"It's not the best way to run a railroad, no question," he said. "Going back to what I was saying awhile ago, we've got two or three options, none of which are ideal. But if I'm going to err on the side of somebody, I'm going to err on the side of preparation and support of people in the military."