Let the defense budget war begin

The administration’s new defense budget looks remarkably similar to last year’s plan. But don’t expect the defense-budget debates in Congress to be the same.

Unlike last year, Congress must now determine an overall spending topline for defense. Absent a budget deal, the DOD budget will fall to about $500 billion under sequester provisions. That’s far south of the $534 billion requested by the White House, and many in Congress want even more.

Settling on an appropriate topline will likely dominate lawmakers’ defense discussions, because the stakes are high. Holding to the defense spending cap set by the Budget Control Act would once again force damaging cuts on the military, leading to a hollow force.

The DOD request to increase defense spending by 8 percent, from $496 billion to $534 billion, should not come as a surprise. This is in line with the five-year plan DOD put forward in 2014, which projected a fiscal-year-2016 budget of $535 billion. At $130 billion over the Budget Control Act spending caps, the 2016 budget request continues forward the same five-year plan—with some small exceptions. This is to be expected, as DOD is still using the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) as its guiding strategic document.

The new budget, consequently, has many of the same problems as last year’s. The driving architecture, the QDR, was criticized as a budget-driven strategy. The bipartisan National Defense Panel chartered by Congress concluded that the force structure outlined in the QDR “is inadequate given the future strategic and operational environment.” While DOD has slowed the rate of cuts to end-strength, the Active Army still plans to cut 15,000 soldiers next year. The Marine Corps will cut another 2,000 in 2017.

The department has also been recovering from major readiness shortfalls created by sequestration in FY 2013. The budget request would continue efforts to regain “full-spectrum readiness,” but it does so with an extended timeline. According to this budget plan, it would take five years to address the readiness issues of the Army and Marine Corps. Meanwhile, the Air Force would not reach “full-spectrum readiness” until FY 2023. This plan lacks immediacy. Moreover, it’s insufficient, given that the military is engaged in what it calls “three emergent geopolitical challenges: Russian activities in the Ukraine; rise of ISL; [and] Ebola” in addition to Afghanistan.

Additionally, members of the Armed Services Committees will likely have problems with the inclusion of several cost-saving proposals that they rejected in last year’s authorization. These include DOD’s request to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, conduct another round of BRAC, and make changes to compensation (like consolidating TRICARE plans).

These debates are not new. They are also completely dependent on what the final DOD budget level will be.

Now that the White House has presented its budget, Congress will have to pass its own version. Most likely, lawmakers will produce something similar to the 2013 Ryan-Murray bill. Getting there will require negotiations between Republican and Democratic members of Congress and the White House. If a budget deal can be reached, then the debate of what is or is not in the defense budget can begin.

Getting a budget deal will be an uphill battle. Even though Republicans now control both chambers of Congress, any piece of legislation still needs to be signed by the president. Thus, Congress will have to find a new balance between the conservative fiscal priorities of the Congress and the domestic priorities of the White House. National security may again become a bargaining chip for issues like reducing the deficit, taxes and spending on infrastructure. However, there is still a chance Congress and the White House can pass a budget that funds defense responsibly.

For the first time in six years, the White House has released a budget on time. It’s a small accomplishment, but it gives Congress several additional—and much needed—weeks to craft a budget.

 - Diem Nguyen Salmon is the senior analyst for defense budgeting in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.

About the Author

Diem Nguyen Salmon Senior Policy Analyst for Defense Budgeting
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The National Interest