If the Defense Department could better manage its finances, it could put unused dollars into tackling the maintenance backlog at military facilities, according to an official with the Government Accountability Office.

“GAO has found that each year DoD doesn’t obligate — and eventually returns to the U.S. Treasury — billions of dollars in operation and maintenance funding, the same type of funding that can be used to fund facility sustainment,” said Elizabeth A. Field, director of defense capabilities and management for GAO, testifying before the Senate Armed Services panel on readiness and management support April 19.

When GAO conducted a review of DoD’s deferred maintenance backlog, “we found that the facilities that are so often the first to lose out on funding are the ones most directly tied to quality of life — barracks where junior enlisted service members live, for example, or child care centers,” she said.

In discussion groups GAO has held at military installations around the country, “service members have consistently told us that the condition of their housing, whether government-owned or privatized, impacts their perception of the military and in some cases their decision on whether to reenlist,” Field said.

“As one young soldier said to us, ‘if we get the bare minimum in the barracks, the Army will get the bare minimum from us,’ " Field said.

The deferred maintenance backlog is about $137 billion, “which is only compounding,” Field said, adding that it equates to about one-seventh of DoD’s total budget.

The significant infrastructure and environmental challenges DoD faces “require urgent attention because they are, in many if not most cases, on track to worsen in coming years,” Field said.

These facility funding backlogs “are compounding every year, with communities in Hawaii and across the country paying the price,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. “When our installations don’t get the funding they need, we end up facing crises like the fuel spill at Red Hill and Haleakala, the power outages at Schofield Barracks, the wastewater spills into Pearl Harbor.”

The military “must get serious with a facilities plan and maintenance plan backed by adequate resources to make it achievable,” Hirono said.

The Defense Department is beginning to transition to a new way to address facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization, Brendan Owens, assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, told lawmakers.

He acknowledged the department has a backlog that is “paralyzingly large,” and the current method of calculating funding “is not aligned with the way that buildings fail. … They fail in sort of episodic functions over the course of time in a downward degradation.”

“If you allow that degradation to begin, you never get those buildings back up to what they were or what they should have been, again, without a major capitalization,” he said.

The new system is “much more about how we look at recapitalization over time and then, at a high level, making sure that we have the sustainment of facilities so that the degradation doesn’t begin,” he said.

DoD relies on its restoration and modernization program funding to reduce the maintenance and repair backlog, Owens said in written testimony provided to the subcommittee. The fiscal 2024 budget request includes $6.2 billion in operations and maintenance funding for the restoration and modernization of facilities, a 14% increase over the fiscal 2023 budget request for $5.4 billion, he stated.

The department’s FY 2024 budget request includes $13.8 billion of sustainment funding for the military services and the major DoD-wide organizations, a $1.2 billion increase over the $12.6 billion in the fiscal 2023 request. Sustainment funding provides for the regularly scheduled maintenance, repair or replacement of facility components and directly influences their condition.

“What we have to do is improve our planning and improve our assessment of the need,” said Rachel Jacobson, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, in agreeing with Owens’ description of how the approach must be changed to address the backlog. “It’s not just necessarily the age of a building, it’s what are the facilities within the building, what’s their condition, what is the use of that building right now, and are we making the best use of it,” she said.

The Army is planning to invest more than $11 billion over the next decade to repair barracks and build new ones.

The Navy’s current facilities maintenance backlog stands as at nearly $33.7 billion, said Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and the environment. The service is now developing a 30-year infrastructure plan for their sustainment.

The Air Force is preparing to refresh its installation investment strategy, which launched in 2019, said Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations and environment. “What that does … is take a look at what our right size is going to be … and starts getting at this maintenance issue.”

One of its focus areas is dormitories, where much more investment is needed, he said, and the service has launched a master plan. Currently the Air Force is targeting $1.7 billion for dormitory sustainment, restoration and modernization from fiscal 2022 to FY 2026.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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