By Travis J. Tritten
WASHINGTON — A pot of money created to fund wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is critically needed for other U.S. military offensive operations around the world, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told House lawmakers Wednesday.
Winnefeld and other top Department of Defense leaders proposed expanded use of the supplement war funding during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, saying it could offer a way around mandatory military budget cuts as threats rise in the Middle East and eastern Europe.
The war fund, called Overseas Contingency Operations budget, has been tapped by Congress for years to cover minor military spending shortfalls, but President Barack Obama has proposed adding $6 billion to a $65.8-billion pot in the coming year for two new formal initiatives, in Syria and in Europe, that fall far outside the waning U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Winnefeld said the supplemental funding pot — money approved outside the DOD base budget — could be expanding even further and used for anything the military “would not normally be doing in a peaceful world.”
The military sees the OCO money as a way around a spending crunch caused by mandatory sequestration cuts imposed by Congress. So far, lawmakers in the House and Senate have not supported Pentagon efforts to slim personnel costs and end some ship and aircraft programs.
If the supplemental money disappears, “you will have a broken force at the end of the day,” Winnefeld said. “We will not be able to execute even close to what the strategy calls for us to do.”
Instead, the OCO war chest could be tapped whenever the U.S. needs to launch operations to fight threats or stamp out violence around the globe, Winnefeld said.
For example, the DOD base budget would pay for a routine deployment of an aircraft carrier but the supplemental war chest would kick in if missions are launched to counter conflicts such as those in Syria and Iraq, he said.
The administration OCO budget released last month proposes using $5 billion to train and equip moderate opposition forces in the Syria civil war, and $1 billion will go to increased rotations and training with allies in Europe following Russian aggression toward Ukraine.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who also testified Wednesday, said the operations are necessary due to deep concern over the security of allies in the Middle East such as Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The U.S. could pull those initiatives out of the OCO budget and pay for them out of the base budget, but it would necessitate cuts that could hamstring military forces, Work said.
“The rest of that money would have to be absorbed by the [general] budget and it would likely come out of [military] readiness,” he said. “This is something we think about all the time: ‘How do we get out of this readiness trough over the coming years?’”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the committee, said the military needs to create some guidelines for OCO expenditures if it wants to permanently expand use of the money beyond Afghanistan.
“If it is broader than that, then that is OK, but I think we need some parameters,” Smith said. “One could make the argument that there is always going to be something unanticipated in the defense world.”
Many lawmakers oppose sequestration but Congress has failed to reach a compromise that reverses it. Still, some in the House balked at the work-around.
“To have another fund out here to just get around the [sequestration] caps to me might not be the most helpful approach moving forward,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Other lawmakers said they opposed pumping up a federal fund that was already vaguely defined and used to foot wasteful war spending for years.
“I look at the absolute waste of life [in Afghanistan] first and money second,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. “When in the world do we get to a point where we say, ‘Enough is enough!’ … I don’t know why you need this money it is a slush fund anyway.”