It’s hard to have too much sympathy for the fiscal plight of the Department of Defense, whose total budget last year breached $600 billion – more than the next seven highest-spending countries combined. And if President-elect Donald Trump has his way, overall military spending will rise substantially in the coming years.
For now, however, the Pentagon, like just about every other major department and agency, is limping along under a short-term appropriations resolution forcing it to operate under last year’s spending levels while facing with this year’s more ambitious and demanding operational and procurement imperatives.
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For the eighth year in a row, Congress has failed to complete work on all major appropriations bills for the coming year and has resorted to a series of continuing resolutions, or CRs, to keep the government operating and avoid another shutdown.
The most recent CR will keep the government afloat through Dec. 9. Republican leaders appear determined to kick the can down the road again with another CR until the end of March, to give the incoming Trump administration time to weigh in on the final shape of the fiscal 2017 spending package.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) concluded that another delay was necessary to give their members and the new Republican administration more time to reconcile their differences over spending priorities and clear the deck in January for a big vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Yet budget policy watchdog groups including the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) believe this is a reckless way of doing business that could harm the quality of government and even jeopardize national security.
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The Defense Department had requested $582.7 billion – including $58.6 billion for overseas military operations – for fiscal 2017, which technically began Oct. 1. The Department of Energy sought an additional $20 billion for defense-related projects.
But because Congress has yet to get around to approving spending for the new fiscal year, the Pentagon has to adhere to the fiscal 2016 spending levels totaling $580.3 billion – or $2.4 billion below their request for the current fiscal year.
While there is little difference in the two top lines, retaining last year’s funding levels well into the new fiscal year restricts the Pentagon’s ability to execute its modernization and readiness plans and prevents the military from starting procurement of new weapons systems, according to experts.
“The Defense Department and other agencies are straightjacketed by being held to last year’s funding levels for their programs,” Katherine Blakeley, a research fellow at the non-partisan CSBA, said in an interview Tuesday. “If you’re the Defense Department, you might get about the same amount of money, but it might be allocated in the wrong way.”
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For example, she said, the Navy is working on a new generation of ballistic missile submarines to replace the Ohio-class nuclear subs. That project represents one of the Pentagon’s highest priorities in maintaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent.
Until now, the new submarine has been in the research, design and development phases. But because the Defense Department is hamstrung by last year’s budget, it may not have the procurement money necessary to begin building the first of the new submarines this year.
“DoD cannot start procurement of new systems, as continuing resolutions typically prohibit ‘new starts,’” said Blakeley.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) appeared crestfallen when GOP leaders again postponed final action on a new set of spending bills for fiscal 2017, and warned that government by CR was a risky way of proceeding. “We must continue to keep our federal agencies and programs open for business, while looking towards future progress on these vital Appropriations bills,” he said in a statement in mid-November.
“I am also hopeful for a renewed and vigorous ‘regular order’ on future annual funding bills, so that the damaging process of Continuing Resolutions will no longer be necessary,” he added.
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Managers at the Department of Defense struggle to adjust to spending on auto-pilot that doesn’t account for emergencies or sudden changes. Frequently they are saddled with more money than they want for certain programs and less money than they need for high priority activities, purchases and development.
Defense Department Comptroller Mike McCord recently said that his biggest challenge is operating within a continuing resolution, according to a report by Federal News Radio.
“We have a contractual understanding with Boeing that we’re going to buy more tankers this year than we did last year,” he said. “If we’re unable to fulfill that because we’re in a CR that prohibits us from increasing our quantity purchase, we’re going to waste hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, for which they will get nothing in return.”
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Here are seven programs at the Pentagon facing disruption by the use of continuing resolutions, based on a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study by Blakeley and Maureen Smolskis:
1. AGM-114 Hellfire. The Army and Navy intend to purchase more of these air-to-ground missiles for use against ISIS while the Air Force wants less, but the continuing resolution is preventing the three branches from shifting funds to adjust to their specific needs. The Air Force will be required to spend $698 million on Hellfire acquisition in fiscal 2017, about 300 percent more than the amount it originally requested, while the Army will get significantly less than it wants next year.
2. KC-46A Pegasus. The continuing resolution will cap the number of these new tanker aircraft the Air Force can purchase in fiscal 2017 at 12, instead of the 15 that were originally requested. That means that the Air Force will have to rely for a longer period of time on older, less capable tanker aircraft for mid-air refueling.
3. Ohio Replacement Program/Columbia Class SSBN. The Navy is concerned that the continuing resolution will slow its schedule for replacing the aging Ohio-class nuclear submarines with the new Columbia-class submarines. Any further budget delays could hold up delivery of all dozen planned Columbia-class submarines beginning in the late 2020s.
4. CH-53K King Stallion. The Marine Corps plans to replace its ancient CH-53E heavy lift helicopters with this new model with twice the capacity, but is experiencing “gaps in airlifts” because of a shortage of the new choppers, which were supposed to start coming on line in 2017. Further delays to the CH-53K will force the Marines to continue to rely on the older helicopters for a longer period of time.
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5. Carrier Replacement Program. The Pentagon is pressing for construction of additional Ford-class aircraft carriers to replace the aging Nimitz-class carriers. The Navy needs at least eleven of them in the coming years and anything less could cause gaps in coverage in the Middle East and Pacific if the carriers must rotate home more frequently for maintenance.
6. E-2D Hawkeye. This airborne early warning aircraft is the “eyes and ears” of the carrier strike group and can detect long-distance threats like enemy missiles, ships and aircraft. The Navy requested $1.52 billion for fiscal 2017 to procure six of these aircraft, or one more than the year before. Any interruption in the acquisition of these planes could put the military at a disadvantage in detecting enemy attacks.
7. F-35B Lightning II STOVL Aircraft. This versatile aircraft is being jointly developed by the Navy and Marines as an eventual replacement for the F/A-18 Hornet. The goal is to have two F-35B squadrons ready for deployment in 2018. The good news for the Navy is that it will receive $171 million more than it requested for fiscal 2017, or $3.3 billion. The bad news is that the mix of research, development and testing and procurement funding is not what the Marines wanted.