The House of Representatives may attempt to fund military at the Defense Department’s requested overall level but shift about $20.5 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations account to get around sequestration-level spending caps – a move that the four service vice chiefs say will not help them improve readiness.
The budget resolution the House of Representatives passed Wednesday is not legally binding – rather, it sets the tone for discussions in the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (HAC-D), which typically adhere to the resolution’s level of funding. Because sequestration is still the law, the budget resolution fell short of the Pentagon’s requested $561 billion in base budget funding. Rather than undo sequestration, lawmakers sought a short-term fix and added $20.5 billion to the OCO account, which is not restricted by sequestration, to achieve the same overall topline.
The problem, the service vice chiefs told the HASC readiness subcommittee, is that OCO funding cannot be used to buy platforms, and it cannot be used to rebuild readiness for home-stationed forces.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO) Adm. Michelle Howard said that while the extra OCO money is better than no extra OCO money, it could not legally be spent where the Navy needs it most.
“It’s the multiyear constraints that’s toughest for the Navy, particularly when you look at shipbuilding and ship contracting,” she said. The Navy is facing a crowded ship construction account in the coming years as the service tries to reconstitute its amphibious ship fleet and continue its destroyer and attack submarine production lines while preparing for the budget-squeezing Ohio Replacement Program (ORP).
“And then in the past there had been restraints on OCO where it could not be used to buy individual platforms such as aircraft,” Howard continued.
“So when you look at procurement and you look at our ability to modernize, OCO, the way it’s currently set up, is not available for us. And clearly for a capital ship-intensive force, multiyear funding is essential for us to continue to grow the Navy,” she said, referring to the aircraft carriers and some amphibious ships the Navy is allowed to pay for over several sequential years instead of all at once.
Subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said Congress could try to pass language removing congressional restrictions on what OCO funding may cover, but there are restrictions from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and it is unclear if those could be circumvented.
Gen. John Paxton, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said the services spend about half their funding on people and spend the second largest amount of operations and maintenance. OCO cannot pay for these accounts unless they are directly related to overseas operations. And he echoed Howard’s concern that OCO cannot pay for new platforms, saying that “the reason our readiness is degraded is because of inability to put sufficient money into modernization, inability to put sufficient money into sustainment.”
Paxton noted that modernization only accounted for nine percent of the Marine Corps’ requested budget, and under the congressional plan to move funding to OCO that could be even lower.
The Marines’ modernization needs are substantial despite the shortage in funding. Paxton said they “are in the midst of an aviation bathtub,” after deciding many years ago to replace several aging fixed-wing platforms with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Sequestration is now constraining how quickly the service can buy the JSFs, and OCO funding would not help that situation.
Even more pressing, though, is that limitations to the modernization budget would hurt the ability to pursue the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) and a new generation of surface connectors, which are farther behind in development than the JSF.
“You can become a hollow force in many ways. …. The one thing we don’t want to have is, in the Marine Corps for example, we don’t want to have now with V-22 and F-35, we don’t want to have a 21st Century aviation capability and then we don’t have our ACVs and our ship-to-shore, we cant work with the Army on the [Joint Light Tactical Vehicle], and we have a 20th Century ground capability; and then because we’ve done all those and the maintainers aren’t there we have a 19th Century logistics capability,” Paxton said, referring to a depot maintenance funding shortfall that has grown in recent years as the Marines have tried to keep their acquisition programs on track and pay for increasing forward presence.
Ultimately, Paxton and Howard said, the extra OCO money addresses a few short-term problems but leaves some significant long-term issues unaddressed. Howard cited the civilian workforce as one of those issues – when sequestration first hit, civilians were furloughed, and there is still angst in the workforce as sequester continues to loom over their heads.
Paxton noted that half the Marines’ nondeployed units are suffering from personnel, equipment or training shortfalls.
“If our home-station units are not ready due to a lack of training, manning or equipping, it could mean a delayed response to resolve [a contingency that arises] or to execute an operational plan, both of which we would consider and would create unacceptable risk for our national defense strategy.”