Playing Politics with the Post-War Drawdown

May 9, 2014

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U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank. [U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Todd Robinson, 5/7/13]

This week, the House Armed Services Committee completed its markup of the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). While the bill respects the caps on Pentagon spending, it misses the opportunity to make hard and smart choices about weapons programs and reforms to help the Pentagon adapt to future threats and budgetary realities. By forestalling these choices to protect pet in-district projects, the current bill exacerbates the challenge of responsibly managing the post-war drawdown. The bill includes funding for weapon systems the military didn’t ask for – like upgrades to tanks the Army doesn’t want and more funding for aircraft carriers the Navy didn’t request – that ultimately tie the Pentagon’s hands in adapting the armed forces to meet future challenges. The continued spending of billions on the F-35 also prevents rebalancing the military to future threats, an aircraft with key capability and development shortfalls despite an overall price tag of $1.5 trillion. The bill also blocks key efforts to find efficiencies, like additional base closures despite excess infrastructure and billions in potential savings. Finally, the bill authorizes nearly $80 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, which has been abused to skirt spending caps in the past. On this front, however, a sign of progress emerged as even top conservative hawks called that practice into question.

The NDAA funds weapons programs that are outdated or ill-suited to meet future threats, stymieing the Pentagon’s ability to adapt. These programs include:

Nuclear aircraft carriers, despite bipartisan expert consensus on overreliance relative to future threats:  Congress added hundreds of millions for refueling and overhauling the USS George Washington – something not requested by the Pentagon – as a down payment for a multi-year process that could cost up to $6 billion. This is despite the growing vulnerability of carriers to asymmetric weapon systems and the changing dynamics of naval warfare. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has warned that, “the large aircraft carrier may no longer be an effective weapon system for defending U.S. interests overseas as new technologies designed to threaten and destroy surface ships are developed and spread to many countries.” Moreover, the conclusion of reducing Navy reliance on vulnerable carriers is supported by bipartisan experts. In a budgeting exercise conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), all four teams from CSIS, AEI, CNAS and CSBA reduced the number of carriers in the Navy in both full-sequester and half-sequester scenarios. Even the conservative think tank AEI reduced to from 11 to 7 carriers in a half-sequester scenario. [CBO, 11/13. CSBA, 3/14/14]

M1 Abrams upgrades the military doesn’t want and doesn’t need: This year continues the trend of conservative members of Congress forcing the Army to spend millions on M1 tanks that weren’t requested. The Washington Post explained last time around, “Military officials say they’ve given careful thought to their strategy and they simply can’t afford to pay for more upgraded tanks. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, made its case before Congress in 2012. ‘We don’t need the tanks,’ he said. ‘Our tank fleet is 21 / 2 years old average now. We’re in good shape, and these are additional tanks that we don’t need.’” [Washington Post, 1/31/14]

Billions spent on the F-35 despite massive capability and development problems: Military journalist David Axe explains, “Owing to heavy design compromises foisted on the plane mostly by the Marine Corps, the F-35 is an inferior combatant, seriously outclassed by even older Russian and Chinese jets that can fly faster and farther and maneuver better. In a fast-moving aerial battle, the JSF ‘Is a dog…overweight and underpowered,’ according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight. And future enemy planes, designed strictly with air combat in mind, could prove even deadlier to the compromised JSF.” Yet, that reality reflects the intended capabilities of the F-35. The actual capabilities of the F-35 have been wracked by development problems. Bill Hartung of the Center for International Policy explains, there are “serious questions about whether the F-35 will ever be able to perform as advertised.  In fact, a recent report from the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering predicts that the F-35 will conclude its development phase without being able to carry out 40 percent of its originally envisioned operational capabilities.” [David Axe, 4/27/14. Bill Hartung, 4/14/14]

The NDAA fails to authorize Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) to shut down excess infrastructure that is costing the military billions with no benefit. Despite the Pentagon’s request for a new round of BRAC, and the Army saying it has up to a 28 percent excess in infrastructure, Congress has refused to authorize the request. However, the savings from past BRAC rounds have been proven. Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret.), Nora Bensahel, Jake Stokes and coauthors of CNAS explain, “DOD currently saves $12 billion per year from previous rounds of BRAC — $4 billion for the 2005 round and $8 billion for the four rounds before that…Combined with savings from closing [unneeded] DOD schools in the United States and reducing base support and facilities maintenance costs, authorizing and conducting a BRAC round could save up to $17 billion over the decade, with much greater savings afterwards.” [David Barno, Nora Bensahel, Jake Stokes et al, 6/6/13]

The NDAA’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, which is intended for war-related use but serves largely as a slush fund to skirt spending limits, remains a top concern – and even top conservative hawks are taking notice. The NDAA includes the Pentagon’s request for nearly $80 billion in OCO funding. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments explains the problem, “Since the enactment of the BCA, which does not count war-related funding against DoD’s budget cap, Congress and DoD have moved items that had been funded in the base budget to the OCO budget. In FY 2014, this practice appeared to expand. DoD transferred some $20 billion in operations and maintenance funding from the base budget to OCO in the budget request (author’s estimate), and Congress moved an additional $9.6 billion from base to OCO in the appropriations bill.”

But even Buck McKeon’s (R-CA) mark of the NDAA expressed concern: “The committee is concerned about the large portion of enduring activities, training, sustainment, and other military requirements being funded through amounts authorized to be appropriated for OCO. The committee believes the Department of Defense is accepting high levels of risk in continuing to fund non-contingency related activities through the OCO budget…” [Todd Harrison, 3/14. Chairman’s Mark, Sec. 332]

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