In formally unveiling his plans to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS forces in the Middle East during his nationally televised speech Wednesday night, President Obama said nothing about what his long-term strategy would cost in terms of increased spending on defense, anti-terrorist activities, enhanced homeland security measures, assistance and training for friendly rebel forces in Syria and the many other related expenses.
While the initial cost of expanding U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in northern Iraq to include forays into parts of neighboring Syria can easily be absorbed by the Defense Department’s Overseas Contingency Operations, some lawmakers and policy experts anticipate renewed pressure to eliminate automatic across the board spending cuts in the Defense Department budget that are scheduled to resume next year.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said on Thursday that he and many other Republicans are skeptical that Obama’s proposal will be enough to defeat the brutal jihadist terrorist organization and train and equip the Free Syrian Army rebel forces in Syria. “A lot of our members don’t feel like the campaign outlined last night will accomplish the mission the president says – and that is to destroy ISIS,” Boehner told reporters. “And so frankly a lot of our members think a lot more needs to be done than what was laid out last night.”
How deeply the U.S. dives into the crisis bears directly on the cost. Some experts have estimated that extending the air war against ISIS into Syria could cost between $10 and $15 billion per year – pocket change at the Pentagon. But many, like Boehner, doubt the president’s goals can be accomplished on the cheap.
For months leading up to Obama’s announcement last night Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has sought to rally members of Congress to terminate the roughly $500 billion of long term defense cuts – part of what was known as the sequester – that were mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011. The Pentagon absorbed about $37 billion of those cuts last year, before Congress and the administration negotiated a two-year budget deal for fiscal 2014 and 2015 that would temporarily block the sequester.
But there will be a new round of much tougher automatic spending cuts beginning late next year unless Congress steps in and cancels them altogether. “If sequestration continues — and it is the law of the land and it will come back in 2016 unless the Congress changes it… it will affect everything we do and every decision we make,” Hagel said last July. “I’m hopeful that the Congress will do something about it.”
An analysis released by the Defense Department April 15 concluded that sequester level budgets would result in continued force-level cuts across the military services – including a reduction of 420,000 active duty soldiers in the Army, a drop of 175,000 active duty Marine Corps personnel, the elimination of an entire fleet of KC-10 tankers in the Air Force as well as a reduced inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles and the mothballing of six destroyers and the retirement of an aircraft carrier in the Navy.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a member of the House Budget Committee, told CNN last night that Congress must give serious thought to permanently eliminating the sequester in the face of the increasingly dangerous situation in the Middle East.
“As a result of sequestration and the raiding of military readiness accounts, the military has suffered a series of devastating cuts that compromise their safety, readiness and ability to meet the ever present threats to our national security,” Blackburn said in a statement Thursday. “ It is immoral to ask our military servicemen and women to suit up and ship out without the proper resources, training and funds they need.”
Bill Hoagland, a former Republican Senate budget and policy expert, said today, “I think it’s clear that the more the war drums beat, the more pressure that puts on the defense budget cap.” Steve Bell, another former Senate budget expert and a colleague of Hoagland’s at the Bipartisan Policy Center, agrees that “there will be an effort to change the current spending caps.”
This article was updated at 5:41 p.m.
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