The budget the Defense Department will release Tuesday could be the most consequential in recent memory for all involved: troops may lose their jobs, the military could feel the strain from a full withdrawal of all forces in Afghanistan by the end of the year, and an increasingly modern military hopes to shed its antiquated machinery and continually turn to futuristic and unmanned alternatives.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered a peek behind his E-Ring curtain last week with a preview of what he hopes to achieve with this latest budget. His desires notwithstanding, the proposed $496 billion laundry list of military needs may fall on deaf ears among members of Congress who want more cuts, fewer cuts, or flat out refuse to allow the elimination of some time-tested military programs and services.
And check out a few things to consider in the hundreds of pages of defense dollars and cents made public on Tuesday:
The Overseas Contingency Operations budget, or OCO, is a separate budget to pay specifically for U.S. wars and some development work abroad. It is not subject to the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, and has been used by the Department of Defense and Congress to protect money from the automatic cuts since they took effect last year.
The OCO remained relatively steady last year at roughly $86 billion despite steady drops in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan in recent years to a current level of 34,000.
“DOD has done a lot to move funding from its base budget to its OCO budget,” said Todd Harrison, a budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in a call with reporters Monday morning.
This “uncapped funding stream” or “escape valve,” has allowed the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to pay for the full salary and benefits for 38,000 troops, as well as some operation and management costs for the Army and Air Force, he said.
“It’s largely offset the costs to the base budget from sequestration,” said Harrison. “When people are asking, ‘Why aren’t we seeing more impacts?’ Well, that’s part of the reason.”
This creates a dangerous situation for the Pentagon budget that has been so heavily dependent on this budget: Afghan President Hamid Karzai continues to play a perilous game of chicken with his U.S. allies by refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that defines U.S. forces after 2014. If President Barack Obama follows through on threats to remove all troops at that time, there would be little excuse to continue funding an OCO.
Russell Rumbaugh, a defense budget expert with the Stimson Center, says this accounts for significant uncertainty.
“From a defense budget perspective, one of the things people are worried about is how much of the ‘free money’ in OCO is going to be used?” he says.
The war in Afghanistan is supposed to be over by the end of 2014. The U.S. and its allies have entered into negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. China says it now controls international airspace very near Japan, a staunch U.S. ally, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has mobilized thousands of troops to address the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
“If there’s anything different about this budget than previous budgets, it’s the amount of concern internationally with U.S. leadership, with U.S. strength to its allies,” says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official now with the D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Everybody is going to be looking for evidence of the U.S. either drawing back, or cutting its forces, or weakening its commitments,” he says. “Or, that they can be reassured.”
Leaders and activists in contested regions throughout the world – including allies in Japan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, South Korea, Ukraine, NATO and the European Union – will likely be very concerned following the official release of the latest round of defense cuts, says Cordesman.
“The reaction here is not going to be just a domestic American reaction, it’s going to be global,” he says.
WHAT’S IN THE QDR?
In tandem with the budget this year, the Defense Department is supposed to release the Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive document due to Congress every four years that outlines the Pentagon’s sense of current threats and a strategy to address them in the near and long-term future.
“The QDR shouldn’t try to forecast with any degree of precision what the security environment will be in 2035,” says Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and defense official who specializes in the QDR. “But it can determine what the big trends are: The emerging threats, the new technologies we have to be concerned about, and take advantage of building the future force.”
Gunzinger, now also at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, sees a tough challenge for defense planners faced with intense budget uncertainty at home combined with a growing scope and intensity of threats abroad. He released a report Monday on the potential opportunities before this latest QDR.
“The most effective QDRs are those that try to focus on a small number of challenges instead of trying to address everything,” he said in the CSBA conference call.
CSIS’ Cordesman warns the Pentagon against confusing both the budget and the future strategy by releasing them together.
“There is a lot of pressure to provide a picture as to where we’re headed rather than simply what we’re cutting,” he says. “It doesn’t seem as though anybody is ready to do that yet.”
via 3 Things to Consider With the New Pentagon Budget | Gnomes National News Service .