The U.S. Defense Department should accept the likelihood of continued budget cuts and prepare realistic spending plans that take them into account, an expert said.
"They are still unprepared for this," Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said during a press conference Thursday at the think tank's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Plan for the cuts. Plan for the worst. Hope for the best."
Harrison, who was publicizing his new report on the defense budget, made his remarks days after Army Secretary John McHugh said the service will prepare two budgets next year -- one that takes into account the automatic, across the board cuts known as sequestration, and one that doesn't.
The cuts are set to slice about $52 billion from the Pentagon's budget after Jan. 1, unless lawmakers agree on an alternative deficit-reduction plan. That prospect is viewed as unlikely, given the divide between Republicans and Democrats on spending and taxes.
"This budget battle is not about defense," Harrison said, noting the similarities in military budgets passed by the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate. "It's about other things," he said, such as tax rates and spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
The Defense Department requested a total of $613 billion for fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1, Harrison said. That includes a base discretionary budget of $527 billion, war spending of $79 billion and a mandatory budget of $7 billion, he said. But lawmakers remain at an impasse and haven't passed a full-year budget.
Congress earlier this month passed a short-term funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, to end the government shutdown. The accord will fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the federal debt limit through Feb. 6.
If lawmakers extend the resolution for the rest of the year, the Pentagon's base budget would total about $496 billion, which is about $31 billion less than the initial request, Harrison said. However, because that's higher than the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), after Jan. 1, the budget would be automatically reduced by another $21 billion to about $475 billion, he said.
"This is a very chaotic time for the defense budget," he said.
Even though war funding is decreasing, the average cost per U.S. troop in Afghanistan is expected to rise from slightly less than $1.5 million to more than $2 million, Harrison said. The jump may be due to the military using war funding, known in budget parlance as overseas contingency operations (OCO), for costs normally covered by the base budget, such as pre-deployment training, he said.
"While this budget maneuver avoids pushing the base budget farther over the budget caps prescribed in the BCA, it also means that the base budget does not have an adequate level of funding for regular peacetime training activities," Harrison warned in his report.
Both the Army and Air Force have requested increases in war-related operations and maintenance funding, meaning the services could be categorizing some $20 billion worth of peacetime activities as pre-deployment training in the war budget, Harrison said.
"It looks like DoD has a budget hole they're going to have to plug," he said.
The Defense Department also needs to figure out what to do with all of the drones and bomb-resistant trucks it bought during the past decade for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Harrison said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, and aren't necessarily compatible with the Pentagon's shift to the Asia-Pacific region, where more stealthy aircraft and ships are expected to be used.
"They aren't relevant in that environment," he said.