With the passage of the Budget Control Act (BCA) in 2011, Congress and the President set up a series of mechanisms meant to compel consensus on a roadmap for the nation’s long-term fiscal stability. But instead of compromise, bickering and discontent among the nation’s political leadership led to successive fiscal showdowns and short-term budgetary patches, the latest of which expires in just a few weeks. The effects of the budgetary stalemate have been particularly acute in the Department of Defense (DOD), and the threat to the nation’s armed forces is growing every day.
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The Pentagon announced yesterday it would end its official policy banning women from serving in ground-combat roles, opening an estimated 230,000 positions to female servicemembers. The unexpected move by departing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has met mixed reaction, and numerous questions remain about the practical effects of the decision.
The Thursday announcement by Panetta—who was joined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey—settles one of the last remaining policy disparities between men and women in combat, allowing females to join infantry, artillery, armor, and other combat-coded posts previously reserved solely for men, including the special operations components. But, while the policy change topples some of the last remaining walls for women in uniform, it also poses serious questions for policy makers, chief among them being the status of women vis-à-vis the Selective Service System.
Congress closed its 2010-2012 session by passing a fiscal package that delays deep cuts to the defense budget and other executive branch agencies for two months, averting the “fiscal cliff” that threatened to slash nearly $50 billion from DOD’s 2013 appropriations ledger.
The negotiations offered a very public look at the high-drama posturing that has become a hallmark of dealings between the White House and Capitol Hill. To many casual observers, the back-and-forth signaled a new low in relations between the two branches, but to many on the inside, it was symptomatic of the legislative process that grinds on every day, usually outside of public view.
The hard work of crafting bipartisan legislation may take months of talks behind closed doors but produce only a few days of newsworthy drama. The annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is one of those must-pass measures that enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support but take months of meetings, briefings, hearings and tense negotiations among members of the House and Senate from both sides of the aisle and DOD. The Hill and Pentagon trade budget requests, legislative proposals, cost estimates, testing data, planning documents and long-term strategy to craft each year’s spending priorities and an overarching national-security policy. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) leads the four defense committees each year, followed by House and Senate Defense Appropriators — the HAC-D and SAC-D — and finally the Senate Armed Services Committee — SASC.
Two weeks before budget-makers face the fiscal cliff deadline, there continues to be a great deal of uncertainty within the Pentagon. If the sequestration trigger goes into effect, program offices will be forced to cut billions of dollars from line items across the board. But within the Navy’s shipbuilding office, planners are already dealing with cuts that could impact the Virginia-class submarine program. The Navy and Congress have fought hard to institute a buy-rate of two Virginia-class boats a year, laying the groundwork for a five-year buy of the newest fast attack boat, beginning in 2014. But when the Navy delivered its budget request earlier this year, one submarine had been moved from the front of the line to the back so that budget planners could meet spending top lines mandated by last year’s Budget Control Act.
“We did not have sufficient headroom to fully fund the second boat in 2014,” Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top acquisition official, told the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee in April.
With a price tag of more than $2 billion, it’s easy to see how a submarine that’s two years away from construction ended up on the chopping block. But the costs associated with each boat have come down significantly since the program began, and opponents of the cut say removing one boat from the program now could reverse that trend.
The Navy estimates that sliding the submarine back to Fiscal Year 2014 from 2018 would reduce the total cost of the other nine boats in the current multiyear deal by roughly $900 million. Cost savings on par with the Navy’s estimate mean building the sub in 2014 would be 35 percent cheaper than doing it four years later. Virginia-class shipbuilders General Dynamic Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding add that the continuity of two boats in 2014 would help maintain stability between the supplier base and the workforce.
It’s been a little more than six months since two prominent Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans took aim at efforts underway within the Department of Defense (DoD) to develop a national biofuels market. During the Committee’s May, 24th mark-up of this year’s defense authorization bill, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and the panel’s Ranking Member, John McCain (R-AZ), pushed through separate amendments that would have ended the Department’s pursuit of advanced renewable fuels.
The bill reported out of Committee included Inhofe’s amendment that prohibits the Pentagon from buying alternative fuels if their up-front cost is higher than that of traditional fossil fuels. Language added by McCain and backed by Inhofe banned the DoD from building or retooling refineries to produce biofuels. But in the last two weeks, talks on the energy issue intensified, sparked by a letter to Senate leadership signed by 38 members. The topic of biofuels emerged as a key sticking point, Senate aides said.
The November, 16th letter led by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) and joined by 35 other Democrats, Independent Joe Lieberman (CT) and Republican Susan Collins (ME) called the Inhofe and McCain provisions “harmful and counterproductive” and expressed strong support for “the ability of military leaders to develop and employ alternative fuels.”
Despite billions of dollars being raised and spent during the 2012 election cycle, last Tuesday changed very little in terms of the balance of power. Control of the House, Senate and White House remains the same, though Democrats picked up a handful of seats in Congress and the names and faces on the four defense committees also will be reshuffled in the next session. Still, there is a long list of priorities to be taken care of before the new Congress is sworn in at the beginning of January. Here are some of the biggest items in the national security arena:
What it is: In order to avert a crunch on U.S. borrowing last year, Congress and the President agreed to a deal that raised the debt ceiling but required the House and Senate to cut spending over the long term. The Budget Control Act required a bipartisan panel from the House and Senate to craft compromise legislation that would slash the debt by $1.5 trillion dollars. In the event a compromise could not be reached, an automatic trigger was put into place that would go into effect in January 2013. The trigger was designed to be a poison pill that compelled cooperation, but the deadline for compromise lapsed in November and started the clock ticking toward automatic across-the-board cuts totaling $500 billion each to defense and domestic discretionary spending over the next decade. In DOD, personnel accounts would be spared but shipbuilding plans, fighter programs, and ground vehicle modernization would all suffer equal cuts.
Inside politics: Moderates in the House and Senate have backed a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases that include an end to the Bush-era tax cuts, reforms of the tax code and some changes to entitlement programs. Once, dubbed the “grand bargain,” widespread support has been fickle as each of the factions on the Hill and at the White House angled for better, more politically palatable deals. House Republicans as a bloc have steadfastly refused to back any bill that would increase taxes, but most agree that more revenues must be a part of any deal to cut long-term expenditures. Some Democrats have opposed any change to entitlements, though most members agree that the current system is not wholly sustainable.
In the run-up to Election Day
, both campaigns have put an increased focus on national security, foreign policy and defense spending. President Barack Obama has touted, among other things, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a strategic pivot to the Asian-Pacific and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has criticized the President for his policies in the Middle East, decried defense-spending cuts from the Department of Defense efficiency push and the congressionally mandated sequestration process, and said he plans to pump more money into the Pentagon budget.
Most recently, Obama and Romney have clashed over Navy force structure. The President’s plan invests in nearly ten new ships a year, bringing the aggregate to 307 vessels by 2042. The Romney camp is advocating a 350-ship Navy based on a procurement rate of 15 ships per year.
Both Obama and Romney want to buy more submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers, but Romney also wants a new frigate and a dedicated missile-defense ship. Both the President and his challenger are advocating more tactical fighter aircraft, including a mix of F/A-18s and F-35s. Romney advisers have said they want more of the legacy Hornets, in addition to the new joint-service platform and want to add an 11th carrier air wing, to match air units to each of the Navy’s eleven aircraft carriers.
The two also differ on the total number of ships the Navy needs. At the 19 October foreign policy debate, Romney stuck by his call for a 350-ship fleet. “Our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917,” Romney said. “I want to make sure we have the ships that are required by our Navy.”
The stand prompted one of the more terse exchanges between the two candidates during this cycle.
This week in a speech in Virginia, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney talked about his plan to build a 350-ship Navy, boosting spending on current programs and creating two new ship designs. But affordability is a key detail in any procurement discussion, and it’s one piece of the puzzle that the Romney camp is still fleshing out. Romney also did not identify any new requirements for a 350-ship fleet.
There is no doubt shipbuilding is a priority for whomever occupies the White House for the next four years. The Navy’s current roster of ships is near its smallest since 1916, when then-President Woodrow Wilson signed the Naval Act authorizing a massive build-up. At Wilson’s behest and with congressional approval, the Navy built 10 battleships, six battlecruisers, 30 submarines, 50 destroyers and other support vessels over three years, tripling the size of the sea service by 1919. Wilson’s 752-ship Navy was the high-water mark for decades, and his push leading up to World War I is credited with establishing U.S. naval dominance in the 20th century. But the expansion came at a cost — some $500 million at the time or a mere $10.2 billion in current-year dollars. But today’s ships are different by nearly all metrics — mission, capability, sophistication, size and cost among other factors.
Nearly a century later, Congress finds itself in much the same quandary as Wilson — an aging fleet of warships in need of modernization and, some say, expansion. The U.S. fleet as a whole has been on a slow decline since the late 1980s, bottoming out at 278 ships in 2007. The Navy says it needs between 310 and 316 ships to meet all its obligations around the world, a number that has remained roughly unchanged since the 1994 Quadrennial Defense Review.
The future of certain Navy and Marine Corps programs remain in doubt while a temporary legislative funding measure takes effect on Monday. A little over a week ago, Congress approved a six-month spending package that will give the House and Senate until March of 2013 to decide how to meet the nation’s financial obligations, including funding for the Department of Defense (DoD).
The so-called Continuing Resolutions (CR), allow the government to remain open and operating but they also prevent DoD from starting any new programs and require funding levels for current programs to remain essentially the same. For the DoD overall, the funding continuation means a half-percent increase in the topline, but restrictions in the bill hit the Navy and Marine Corps especially hard. Shipbuilding programs could stall and multi-year buys of fighter and vertical lift aircraft could be put off, driving up costs and impacting readiness.
But the Navy’s two biggest issues in the CR were funding for a pair of aircraft carrier midlife maintenance projects called RCOHs or Refueling and Complex Overhaul. USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) is scheduled to finish its three-year, $2.5 billion rebuild in June 2013, but the CR funded only half of the expected costs. USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) is scheduled to start its downtime next year as well, but new programs are specifically prohibited under the CR.
The Federal government’s fiscal year comes to an end on September 30, and for the sixth straight time, lawmakers will need more time to figure out how they will pay the bills for next year. This is the ninth time in 11 years that Congress has looked to a temporary spending measure, called a Continuing Resolution (CR), to delay decisions on the nation’s funding priorities, 56 times in all since 2001. Last year’s budget debate required seven CRs and took until April to resolve. In August, House and Senate leaders agreed to a longer term approach, announcing that Congress would move forward with a six month package, pushing-off the decision on specific funding levels until after elections are over and a new Congress is sworn-in.
While the CR will allow the federal government to continue spending money into the new fiscal year, it also puts limitations on how that money can be spent, and those limits are especially acute for the Defense Department (DoD). DoD has enjoyed more than a decade of increasing budget top-lines and used those funds to address the changing needs of a force at war, but lawmakers were poised to cut defense spending next year for the first time since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, the CR, approved last week by the House and set for a vote this week in the Senate, will boost the base budget by more than a half-percent to $519 billion. Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) would be funded at proposed fiscal year 2013 levels, a reduction of $26.5 billion.
As with any spending measure, there are winners and losers with the CR. Though Congress will provide DoD with more money than previously expected, the Department will lose some of its flexibility in spending it. The Navy is hit particularly hard by funding restrictions and policy caveats that could impact current operations, future readiness and long-term planning priorities.
At the top of the priority list for the sea service is the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). The 26-year old ship is in the final stages of a three-year-long maintenance and modernization period in Newport News, Virginia that the Navy calls a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH). By the time the TR sets back to sea in 2013, the ship will have new nuclear fuel in its two reactors, upgraded combat and communication systems throughout, and repairs will be made to the ship’s hull, mechanical and electrical systems to keep her viable until at least 2036. The process costs nearly $2.5 billion, but funding for the current phase will dry-up in less than 5 months unless Congress approves new spending for the work. So far, though, this year’s CR does not include funding to finish the overhaul.