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Congress' defense budget plans point to an uncertain military buildup

July 1, 2017 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the House Armed Services Committee )
WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers advanced a flurry of defense funding legislation this week, but are still far away from an actual military budget.

That’s because of a host of unresolved issues in the bills, including how to get a divided Congress to settle on how much should be spent on national defense.

Late June is typically the target date for Capitol Hill military funding moves, but the progress in recent days comes despite a months-late start in the normal budgeting process. The White House plan wasn’t released until late May, three months behind the expected February release date, prompting tight hearing and mark-up deadlines for key defense committees.

President Trump, who has repeatedly promised to rebuild the military, has actually proposed the smallest defense funding plan so far. His $668 billion plan includes $603 billion in base defense funding, a 3 percent boost over the fiscal 2017 budget plan.

House lawmakers are pushing a nearly $697 billion military spending plan with a $621 billion base budget. Senate officials on Wednesday unveiled a $700 billion funding plan with a $640 billion base.

All of those targets are significant because none are close to the $549-billion spending cap mandated by Congress for fiscal 2018. All three plans call for revoking or revising those caps, but none present workable plans for how to do that.

Chamber leaders will spend the rest of the summer searching for a solution. Republicans have long bemoaned the military’s deteriorating readiness because of the caps, while Democrats have blocked any efforts to boost defense spending without comparable increases to other domestic priorities.

Asked this week about the potential for a deal on those issues, Senate Appropriations Committee member James Lankford, R-Okla., predicted “this will be a nice noisy process as we work through it.”

And on Friday, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said much of the work done this week ignores the underlying problem.

“We have not adopted a budget resolution, we do not have a clear plan to lift or modify the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, and it is unclear whether the amounts authorized in this bill will ultimately correspond with reality,” he said.

Until that fundamental fight is resolved, much of the defense funding plans for fiscal 2018 will remain unsettled. But the work completed this week does offer some insights into congressional priorities for services and looming fights to come this fall.  


The military pay raise


Both Trump and the Senate Armed Services Committee have voiced support for a 2.1 percent pay raise for troops next January, which would match the rate service members received earlier this year. If passed, it would become only the second raise of more than 2 percent for the military since 2010.

But outside advocates have noted that mark is less than the 2.4 percent expected raise in private-sector wages next year, the statutory standard for military pay raises. House lawmakers are crafting plans for the higher pay increase, calling it critical to long-term recruiting and retention needs.

The 0.3 percentage point difference translates into big budget figures. The lower mark would save Pentagon planners $200 million next year and $1.4 billion over the next five years, money officials say could be reinvested in training and modernization efforts.

For troops, the difference means about $85 less a year for junior enlisted personnel, $130 for senior enlisted and junior officers, and $240 for mid-career officers.

Complicating the issue further is a potential plan from a group of House Democrats to push for an even higher, 2.9 percent pay raise, to make up for a pay gap with civilian wages that has developed in recent years.

The issue is likely one of the last to be resolved by congressional negotiators, because of the potential savings for other priorities. But regardless the outcome, troops appear poised to a bigger raise in 2018 than they have in recent years.


Force size


Lawmakers approved an increase of 16,000 soldiers in Army end strength last year. Now they’re poised to go even further.

Trump’s budget request laments that military personnel numbers dropped too far during President Barack Obama’s time in office, and calls for a boost of about 4,000 sailors for the Navy and another 4,100 airmen for the Air Force.

House and Senate planners want to go even further. The Senate’s plan calls for those increases, plus 5,000 more active-duty soldiers, 1,000 more Marines, and 1,000 more Army reservists and Guardsmen.

The House Armed Services Committee’s draft authorization bill goes much further. In addition to the Navy and Air Force plus-ups outlined by Trump, it calls for adding 1,700 more members to the Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard, 1,000 to the Naval Reserve, 10,000 active-duty soldiers, 4,000 Army guardsmen and 3,000 Army Reservists.

That’s nearly 19,000 more troops than the president requested, and a gap of almost 12,000 service members with the Senate plan.

The House plan adds about $1.1 billion in personnel costs next year alone, a concern given three more years of congressionally mandated spending caps. Senate officials have already cast doubt on whether Army leaders could reach the House recruiting and retention marks needed for that end strength, regardless of the cost.

Still, all the plans call for an end strength increase of at least 8,000 troops, a change from Pentagon plans to shrink the overall personnel total in favor of a leaner fighting force.


Aircraft


Much of the extra funding in the Senate budget plans is taken up by new equipment, which lawmakers said represent “critical military capabilities for our warfighters.”

For example, Trump’s plan calls for a ramp up of the embattled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, adding 70 new aircraft. The House plan calls for 87. The Senate’s authorizes purchase of 94 of them.

The Senate plan calls for more F/A-18s and Army helicopters than either of the other two proposals. Both the Senate and House want significant increases in the number of P-8A Poseidon submarine hunters, KC-46A tankers and MC-130J refueling aircraft.

Many of those extra aircraft were included in the services’ unfunded priorities list, highlighted as potential needs by military officials if more funding were to be made available.


Ships


Trump has publicly touted his plans for a 355-ship Navy, and the fiscal 2018 budget is meant to be his first step towards that goal. But lawmakers say it’s too small a step.

Both House and Senate lawmakers backed plans to add five more ships to the procurement plan for next year to the president’s slate of eight planned builds.

In the House plan, that includes one more DDG-51, two littoral combat ships and a Puller-class expeditionary sea base. They say the accelerated buildup “takes advantage of hot production lines to deliver the right capabilities at the lowest cost to the taxpayers.”

The Senate plan the destroyer and the sea base, along with an extra $1.2 billion for Virginia-class submarine advance procurement. Both congressional plans also include 13 new ship-to-shore connectors, eight more than what the White House has requested. 


Base closings

For years, Pentagon officials have petitioned Congress to authorize another base closing round to dump excess infrastructure and generate more military savings. And for years, lawmakers have ignored that request.

This budget cycle is no exception.

Despite an administration request for a new base closure round in 2021, neither chamber’s defense spending plans includes any language authorizing one. Staffers from relevant committees dismissed the idea, saying that lawmakers still have no interest in the move.

Defense officials estimate that the department has about 20 percent excess infrastructure capacity across the services, and that cutting back could save $2 billion annually by 2027.

But members of Congress have openly questioned those estimates, pointing to unachieved savings from the controversial 2005 BRAC round. The new administration’s renewed request produced no change in the lawmakers’ defense policy priorities.

   


Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.
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