Fort Bragg Hopeful that Trump Spending Plan Will Provide Funds

C-130 Hercules aircraft display the Fort Bragg-Pope Field tail flashing in March 2011. Air Force planes could be returning to Pope Field. (US Air Force photo/Peter Miller)
C-130 Hercules aircraft display the Fort Bragg-Pope Field tail flashing in March 2011. Air Force planes could be returning to Pope Field. (US Air Force photo/Peter Miller)

After years of tight budgets, hamstrung in part by deep cuts imposed by the federal government known as sequestration, President Donald Trump is promising greater flexibility to military leaders in the form of a $54 billion dollar defense spending boost.

While the final details of the plan have yet to be released, officials believe it's likely to help Fort Bragg, which is home to one-tenth of the Army and is the nation's largest military installation.

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That could mean infrastructure improvements to the post, which is suffering from a degraded and pot-holed filled road network and a maintenance budget that falls far short for the millions of square feet of building space.

It might also mean more training and support to local troops, including a return of Air Force planes to Pope Field to support the 82nd Airborne Division and other airborne units.

The White House released a more developed outline of the spending plan on Thursday. In a letter to Congress accompanying the plan, Trump said the request includes $30 billion to "rebuild the U.S. Armed Forces and accelerate the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" and $24.9 billion for "urgent warfighting readiness needs, and to begin a sustained effort to rebuild the U.S. Armed Forces.

The request is aimed at addressing shortfalls in personnel, training, maintenance, equipment, munitions, modernization and infrastructure investment -- with $236 million earmarked for military construction, $13.5 billion for the procurement of new helicopters, planes, unmanned aerial systems and other equipment and $7.2 billion set aside for operations and maintenance, including the funding of additional training and facility investments.

"It represents a critical first step in investing in a larger, more ready, and more capable military force," Trump said.

But that document likely won't be left untouched. That's because, as President Obama learned while working with a Republican-controlled Congress, it's that body that controls the nation's purse strings.

Lawmakers are likely to have different priorities than Trump, who campaigned on a promise to "Make America Great Again" and has repeatedly criticized the current military that has been hampered by budget cuts while maintaining operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the globe in recent years.

Sen. Thom Tillis will likely play a big role in how the additional defense spending is ultimately distributed.

Earlier this year, the North Carolina Republican, whose constituents include Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, was named chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee.

That group plays a big role in the day-to-day lives of troops and their families, with responsibilities to oversee military and Department of Defense civilian personnel policies, end strengths for military personnel, pay and other benefits, military healthcare, military nominations, legislation dealing with education, military schools and transition programs. Tillis has said the subcommittee would look to improve facilities, training and readiness within the military.

"The bottom line is readiness," Tillis said when asked how he would like to see Trump's proposed budget boost spent. "Do the airborne and special operations forces have sufficient funding to train for their missions? Do they have the ammunition? Is their equipment ready? Do they have fuel?"

Tillis said much of the focus for the increase has been on new planes, ships and other vehicles. But he said he would be looking elsewhere to support the nation's troops.

"I'm not so much interested in chasing the shiny high-priced objects the Beltway likes to talk about, because the priority needs to be what is good for the troops, and that is readiness," the senator said.

But Tillis did pledge to ask the Trump administration about returning Air Force planes to Fort Bragg.

Last year, the Air Force eliminated the only C-130 wing on post, which provided direct support to the 82nd Airborne Division and others.

Outside air crews currently fly in from other installations to provide support to airborne operations and training and Fort Bragg officials have praised the Air Force for that support in recent months.

But the lack of "hometown" planes still irks many, who said a local air wing provides benefits to training flexibility and familiarity that outside crews can't duplicate.

Runway extension

Along with Tillis, Rep. Richard Hudson in the U.S. House, whose district includes Fort Bragg, will be keeping a close eye on the spending boost and its potential local impact. He said he supports the increase, but wants to see how the Trump administration plans to offset the additional funds.

Among Hudson's wish list for the defense money, he said he's like to see Fort Bragg's main runway at Pope Field extended to better support larger aircraft like C-17s and C-5s. Hudson said he's been involved in efforts to extend the runway at Pope since the 1990s, when he worked on the staff of former Rep. Robin Hayes.

The current runway is too short to support a fully loaded C-17 or C-5, meaning crews must either carry less equipment or refuel after leaving Fort Bragg. That creates additional risks and delays for local troops charged with deploying on a moment's notice to anywhere in the world.

Speaking on board the USS Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia earlier this year, Trump pledged his support to improve the military.

"After years of endless budget cuts that have impaired our defenses, I am calling for one of the largest defense-spending increases in history," he said.

Trump has said the "great rebuilding effort" will create jobs across the nation while spurring new technology and innovations.

Hudson said the biggest effect of a spending increase funds is likely to come in the certainty an increased budget will provide.

Maintenance issues

Trump has said he plans to end sequestration, an austere fiscal policy implemented as a result of Congress's Budget Control Act of 2011. Arguments within Congress and with President Obama over how the cuts should be implemented have long delayed the budget process in recent years, often resulting in the military and other federal agencies working under a continuing resolution using the previous year's budget numbers.

The fiscal environment has curtailed spending, particularly when it comes to maintaining installations. 

Trump's plan to invest in military infrastructure is good news for Fort Bragg, where officials have said the installation has a more than $300 million shortfall on its maintenance and sustainment budget.

In many cases, new construction for on-post facilities is frozen. In other areas, such as pools of money to repave roads and install sidewalks, available funds are barely enough to make a dent on the installation's needs.

At a Fort Bragg garrison town hall in February, the deputy garrison commander, Justin Mitchell, said that the installation has more than 50 million square feet of facility space, by far the most in the Army.

But limited resources mean officials have the money to maintain only about 63 percent of that space, with some facilities, such as those that support the deployment of forces from Pope Field, prioritized.

The problems at Fort Bragg are not unique. Speaking to Congress last week, Lt. Gen. Gwendolyn Bingham, the Army's assistant chief of staff for installation management, said 22 percent of the Army's buildings now meet the Defense Department's criteria for "poor" or "failing" condition, with millions needed to make the necessary repairs.

At the same hearing, another general, Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee, the Army's deputy chief of staff for logistics, raised concern about the service's shrinking stockpile of munitions, including missiles and advanced ammunition for artillery.

Bill coming due

Hudson said the military has long delayed fully funding its needs and that eventually, "the bill comes due" at a much higher price than it would have been to maintain the facilities in the first place.

But Hudson said Congress will not write a blank check to the Trump administration. Increases to the Defense budget must be sustainable, he said. And they must be offset.

"I'm concerned about next year's military spending, but I'm also concerned about 10 years from now," Hudson said.

And he said he won't support lifting sequestration without new spending rules in place.

While devastating, Hudson said the ongoing budget cuts imposed by sequestration would be "nothing compared to the debt problem" if spending goes unchecked.

Trump, however, has said military spending is more important than budget control.

In January, he told FOX News host Sean Hannity that he eventually wants a balanced budget, but that a strong military was more important.

"A balanced budget is fine," Trump said. "But sometimes you have to fuel the well in order to really get the economy going. And we have to take care of our military. Our military is more important to me than a balanced budget. Because we'll get there with a balanced budget."

(c)2017 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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