By JEREMY HERB and AUSTIN WRIGHT
The Pentagon plans to propose a fiscal 2016 budget of $585 billion, according to draft budget documents, a significant boost by the administration after a host of cuts to weapons programs and personnel benefits were proposed last year to meet spending caps under sequestration.
Congress ignored most of those cuts. And now that Republicans control both the House and the Senate, there’ll be pressure for more defense spending as the U.S. battle against terrorism refocuses from the dwindling combat operations in Afghanistan to the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The defense budget request, set to be unveiled on Monday, includes $534.3 billion for the base budget and $50.9 billion in supplemental funding for the war in Afghanistan and other counterterrorism operations, according to draft Pentagon comptroller briefing highlights obtained by POLITICO.
The base budget request represents a $38 billion increase from current year’s base defense budget — extra dollars that largely won’t materialize unless members of Congress can agree to a deal to avert sequestration, set to return next fiscal year following a two-year reprieve.
If approved, the $535 billion budget topline would mark the first time that base budget has jumped back above the $530 billion fiscal 2012 level, the last before sequestration was put into motion.
The war funding budget, which is not subject to sequestration, did drop slightly from $64 billion in fiscal 2014. But the proposed $51 billion is still sizable given that U.S. combat operations are phasing out in Afghanistan and U.S. troop numbers will continue drawing down over the next two years.
The higher budget topline has been expected from the administration, which is likely to propose doing away with the sequestration caps in its budget request through new tax increases. And Republicans are also likely to propose a budget-cap-busting defense topline in their budget resolution through other spending cuts and potentially reductions in entitlement spending.
But if nothing is done to stave off sequestration, defense spending would be subject to an across-the-board cut at whatever amount exceeds the spending caps.
The Pentagon’s five-year budget plans call for ramping up base defense spending to $570 billion in 2020, as well as $27 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations, according to the draft documents.
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban declined to authenticate the briefing highlights but noted that draft documents can “change an awful lot.”
According to the highlights, the Pentagon will request $209.8 billion in operations and maintenance funding in the base budget, an increase of $14.5 billion from this fiscal year. The proposal would also boost procurement spending by $14.1 billion to $107.7 billion and research and development funding by $6.3 billion to $69.8 billion, according to the draft documents.
That includes three new Littoral Combat Ships, the same number Congress approved last year, as part of an $11.6 billion nine-ship procurement package that will also fund two Virginia-class attack submarines, according to the highlights. There’s also $55 million for LCS capabilities improvements.
The other ships requested are two destroyers, one amphibious transport and one new oiler.
The budget request seeks $678 million for the refueling of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier — funding that wasn’t in last year’s Pentagon request but was added by Congress — and $1.4 billion for the Ohio-class replacement nuclear submarine program.
The budget proposal requests $3 billion for the KC-46A tanker program, $1.2 billion for the development of the new long-range bomber and $821 million for MQ-9 Reaper procurement.
And it would request $10.6 billion to procure 57 F-35 fighter jets — a major ramp-up from the 38 F-35s authorized for this fiscal year.
The budget will once again seek to save money by increasing Tricare health care fees and through cuts to housing benefits and commissaries. The highlights also show the budget would slow the growth of the basic housing allowance an additional 4 percent above the 1 percent Congress approved in December.
The Pentagon will propose changes to the pharmacy co-pay structure to encourage the use of mail-order and generic drugs, which could save $2 billion over the next five years, according to the highlights. And it will seek what are called “modest annual fees” for Tricare-for-Life coverage that would generate savings of $100 million in fiscal 2016 and $400 million over the next five years.
The budget proposal will include a potential savings of $300 million in fiscal 2016 and $4.4 billion over the next five years through changes to commissaries, which the draft documents say will be achieved through “efficiencies and revenue generating opportunities gained through legislative changes.”
For war funding, known as Overseas Contingency Operations, the request of $50.9 billion is down from the $64 billion approved in this fiscal year, due to the drawdown in Afghanistan.
The war budget includes $42.5 billion for Afghanistan operations and $5.3 billion for operations in and Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to the highlights. It also contains $2.1 billion for the president’s counterterrorism partnership fund and $789 million for the European Reassurance Initiative.
In the base budget, the Air Force is the biggest winner among the services, getting a topline increase of $16 billion from fiscal 2015 to $152.9 billion, according to the draft documents. The Navy would see an increase of $11.8 billion to $161 billion. And the Army would get a $7 billion boost to $126.5 billion.
Addressing end strength numbers, the highlights say that increasing force structure “is too risky” unless the threat of sequestration is lifted.
The budget proposal would cut active Army end strength to 475,000 next fiscal year, a reduction of 15,000 soldiers from authorized fiscal 2015 levels, before dropping to 450,000 in fiscal 2018. The Marine Corps would essentially stay the same in fiscal 2016 at 184,000, before slimming to 182,000 in fiscal 2017.
The Navy, however, would see a boost of 5,600 to 329,200 in the fiscal 2016 request, while the Air Force end strength would increase by 4,000 to 317,000 in 2016, before dropping back down to 311,000 in fiscal 2019