U.S. defense officials are putting their money where their mouths have been with the fiscal 2015 budget request to Congress, which emphasizes the pursuit of new and critical military technology over the size of the military, or even how it is compensated and trained.
The request — officially released March 4 but heavily promoted and detailed last week — follows officials’ declarations since the autumn of 2013 that changing security dynamics worldwide and spending constraints at home mandate a U.S. military that is more technologically capable, albeit smaller and less ready to fight as many or as broad a spectrum of contingencies as it has been prepared for since the end of the Cold War. Even the possibility of large-scale counterinsurgencies like Iraq and Afghanistan would be downplayed.
“The fiscal 2015 budget request continues to give prominence to the improved lethality, survivability, sustainability and affordability of the next generation of weapons systems and military equipment,” according to official documents. “The budget also protects key capability areas in support of [the department’s] strategy, including cyber, missile defense, nuclear deterrence, space, precision strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and counterterrorism and special operations.”
The fiscal 2015 base budget request — not including off-book supplemental spending — seeks $495.6 billion, compared to the enacted 2014 amount of $496 billion. The 2015 base request follows the congressional deal reached by the Bipartisan Budget Act of December 2013, but military officials are also asking for $26.4 billion more in a wish list of additional funds for readiness, acquisitions and base support.
Moreover, projected topline budgets for fiscal 2016-19 would exceed standing sequestration-level spending caps by $115 billion. Under the Future Years Defense Program blueprint provided with the 2015 request, $535.1 billion is seen for 2016, $543.7 billion for 2017, $551.4 billion for 2018, and $559 billion for 2019. Keeping with the public relations effort to brand these amounts as inadequate for national security, thenoted the individual annual allotments fall 16-18% short of previous toplines outlined last April in the 2014 budget request.
The Obama administration’s 2015 wish list, formally known as the Opportunity, Growth and Security (OGS) initiative, includes $1.1 billion for the Navy to buy eightaircraft, $600 million for the Army to buy 26 AH-64 Apache helicopters, $500 million for the Army to buy 28 Black Hawks; $100 million for the Army to buy two Chinooks; $1.1 billion for the Air Force to buy 10 aircraft; $300 million for the Air Force to buy two ; and $200 million for the Air Force to buy 12 .
In doing so, the 2015 request continues high hopes that Congress will agree to provide at least $350 billion in relief to sequestration-level spending caps in the Pentagon’s base, non-supplemental budget, versus the original roughly $500 billion cut to future spending mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act over a decade. The 2014 request provided a blueprint that cut only $150 billion; furthermore, those cuts were back-loaded years out from now to give the Defense Department time to prepare. The 2015 request maintains that approach, bringing the total planned additional amount being assumed or asked for to $141 billion above standing sequestration levels in 2015-19.
Congress has already provided at least $45 billion in relief from original sequestration levels in 2013-15.
During multiple appearances previewing the budget last week, Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said the reason for the above-the-law requests is genuine: defense leaders do not believe they can meet national security needs or follow their existing strategy if full sequestration is carried out. Moreover, officials believe what they are asking for is doable. “We think it is a realistic proposal that reflects strategic imperatives as well as the resources the department might reasonably expect to receive, albeit with strong leadership and cooperation in the Congress,” Fox said.
But key lawmakers like House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) have slammed such assumptions as unbelievable, and he criticizes the Pentagon for fictional planning. While Congress has softened sequestration, a wholesale unraveling of the 2011 law has proven politically impossible and should not be assumed, he stressed to defense reporters last week. That is in part because Republicans will not agree to major revenue-generating efforts called for by the Obama administration to pay for above-sequestration spending.
When pressed, defense officials acknowledge the divide. “We don’t know what Congress is going to do,” said Pentagon CFO Bob Hale. “Sequestration is the law of the land.”
To that effect, defense officials know they still have to make changes to their spending after 13 years of budget growth because no matter the final level of relief that Congress provides, defense budgets are at least flattening. “Making spending choices that will be portrayed as having more losers than winners due to the fact that budgets are tight and could get even tighter is no way to win a popularity contest,” Fox acknowledged. “In many respects, there was something in this package to set off just about everybody’s alarm bells and umbrage meters.”
Nevertheless, beyond emphasizing new capability over capacity due to spending restraints, the 2015 blueprint and accompanying Quadrennial Defense Review build off of national security priorities established by the administration since 2010, especially the 2012 Strategic Defense Guidance that unveiled the “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region, officials said.
According to Fox, implications include “shifting operational focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific, sustaining commitments to key allies in the Middle East, being prepared to defeat a major adversary in one part of the world while denying victory to an opportunistic adversary elsewhere, reducing the force planning requirement to conduct large, prolonged counterinsurgency and stability operations, aggressively pursuing terrorist networks and countering weapons proliferation that threaten the homeland, enhancing capabilities in cyber, space and missile defense, maintaining a smaller but credible nuclear deterrent and continuing a military presence and pursuing security cooperation in multiple regions — Europe, Africa and South America — though at reduced size and frequency.”
In turn, the blueprint and QDR continue to call for controversial reforms to how the Defense Department compensates military personnel in the future, as well as acquires weapons systems. The Pentagon also asked again for another round of base realignment and closures, with planning beginning in fiscal 2017, and said it will look at consolidating European facilities. Total “efficiency savings” projected from 2015 to 2019 were $94 billion, including $30 billion in compensation growth reductions.
But it is the force size cuts that could prove most contentious as America watches news developments in Ukraine, North Korea and elsewhere. The Pentagon plan outlined total reductions of 6% in active-duty ranks by 2019 from 2015, 4% in reserve and National Guard and another 5% down in the civilian employee work force — and that is assuming Congress provides the additional $115 billion. If not, even more reductions like 20,000 fewer soldiers and several more retired Air Force aircraft would be pursued, as noted last week.
“The department has learned from prior drawdowns that it is impossible to generate all the needed savings just through efficiencies,” the Pentagon says in its accompanying budget explanatory material. “The department prioritizes by focusing on key missions relevant to the future security environment.”
Subscribers to the Aviation Week Intelligence Network should keep visiting AWIN’s 2015 budget page for news, data and analysis of programs and priorities throughout the business day and as the proposal makes its way through Congress. The page can be found at http://www.aviationweek.com/awin/USBudget2015.aspx.