Military Update: Budget Blueprints Alarm Joint Chiefs But One Offers Lifeline (Updated March 20, 2015) Military leaders over the past week have sharpened warnings that force readiness is unraveling and could plummet if Congress allows the next round of defense cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), with its sequestration tool, to take effect Oct. 1 The House and Senate budget committees, in turn, issued their own warnings amid rising threats to U.S. interests around the world: No, they are not negotiating an end to the BCA, despite how deeply both Republicans and Democrats claim to despise the debt-reduction law. The committees, however, came up with a way to spare the military the BCA cuts in fiscal 2016: Hold down basic defense spending, as planned, but add billions of dollars back to an account BCA can’t touch: the Department of Defense’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The Joint Chiefs aren’t happy with this but they say national security is at stake with military force structure falling dangerously low, readiness rates still anemic from the last round of sequestration in 2013, and the services forced to rely on aging fleets of ships, submarines and aircraft. The Obama administration didn’t proposed repeal of the BCA to protect defense spending in 2016. But its defense budget assumes Congress will find a way to lift the cap, requesting $534.3 billion or $36 billion more than the BCA permits. It requests another $50.9 billion for OCO. The Joint Chiefs argue the services desperately need that $36 billion. If lost to sequestration it would cut the base defense budget by seven percent. Army already is reporting only 33 percent of brigades being combat ready versus 72 percent needed to meet national strategy requirements. The services would take another $2 billion out of hide next year if Congress rejects administration plans to curb compensation and close bases. So far, Congress isn’t moved to end the BCA. Republicans still say they won’t accept any new deal on reducing the nation’s $18 trillion debt that would raise taxes, and President Obama and Democrats have withdrawn earlier ideas for trimming popular entitlements. So BCA survives, even with Republicans now holding majorities in the Senate and the House. On Wednesday the Republican-led Senate Budget Committee released its plan to set spending levels across federal departments, keeping in place the BCA caps, including for defense. Earlier that day, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had warned that these same caps would devastate the military. “Under sequestration, which is set to return in 197 days,” said Carter, “our nation will be less secure. [BCA] threatens our military’s readiness. It threatens the size of our war fighting forces, the capabilities of our air and naval fleets and ultimately the lives of our men and women in uniform.” “And the great tragedy is that this corrosive damage to our national security,” Carter said, “is not a result of objective factors [such as] logic, reason. Instead sequester is purely the fallout of political gridlock.” Republicans on the House Budget Committee released its budget blueprint just a day earlier. It too would keep the BCA caps, but this plan tries to neutralize the impact on defense spending in 2016 by adding $38 billion to the department’s OCO account. Congress established OCO to keep wartime spending for Iraq and Afghanistan separate from other defense spending. Critics said it has camouflaged the real cost of those wars. It is to be phased out. But House Republicans now hope it can be used to shield defense from the brunt of the BCA while avoid having to compromise with Democrats on full BCA repeal. Under pressure, the Senate committee followed the lead of House panel and added $38 million too to the OCO account, angering fiscal conservatives who opposed dodging the BCA cap to spare defense spending. Dempsey and the chiefs of staffs of Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, testified that more OCO dollars could ease the effect of sequestration but not ideally. OCO money can be used for training and other short-term readiness needs. It is less useful for weapons procurement and it can’t be used to build force structure because manpower costs must be budgeted annually. “There’s a risk to not funding the base and putting it into OCO,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, Army chief of staff, testified. He warned that the services would need greater flexibility to spend OCO money. Otherwise, current rules are too strict and OCO “might not help us…[A]t the end of the year we [might] have money to give back because we were unable to spend it.” “I would much rather have it in the base budget because sometime we’re going to have to shift it…and we’re just delaying that,” Odierno added. Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, also had concerns. “Modernization is a major issue we face. OCO presents some problems because it’s hard to start a new program…looking at a one-year budget cycle.” OCO dollars are “not guaranteed over time and there are limits on what you can spend it on,” Welsh said. Still, he suggested, OCO dollars are far better than no dollars. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the armed services committee, issued a statement saying he wasn’t keen on the House plan either, and that Congress “can and should do better than use Overseas Contingency Operations funds to address this crisis of our own making.” However, McCain said he couldn’t support the original Senate committee resolution to “set defense spending at sequestration levels. Doing so would be a recipe for disaster for America’s national security.” “Using OCO to prevent this scenario is not my preference, but it is infinitely better than the current defense spending caps, and it could help to avert a looming disaster for our military,” McCain said. McCain hinted that the OCO maneuver might be the best the military can hope for in 2016. Beyond that, he said “it will remain my highest priority as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to achieve a long-term, bipartisan solution that ends sequestration once and for all.” To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, or email email@example.com or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update # # # # Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families. Visit Tom Philpott's Military Update Archive to view his past articles. Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com. Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. 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Defense Budget Plans Alarm Joint Chiefs
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