By Laicie Heeley
Click here (PDF) for the Center’s Fiscal Year 2016 Defense Spending Request Briefing Book
A portion of the briefing book (The Fiscal Year 2016 Budget in Context) is below:
In recent years, the president’s budget request has become less of a roadmap for future spending and more an opening bid. At $534 billion, the president’s fiscal year 2016 (FY16) base Pentagon request is a big jump up from previous years—$35 billion over the spending caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and $38 billion over last year’s fiscal year 2015 (FY15) request. With an additional $51 billion slated for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), the request comes to $585 billion before factoring in nuclear costs at the Department of Energy and additional non-Pentagon defense-related activities. The president’s OCO request contains $42.5 billion in funding for Afghanistan, $5.3 billion for operations against the Islamic State, and smaller amounts for Iraq, Counterterrorism Partnership Funds (CTPF), European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), and Ebola.
The last time the Pentagon’s base and OCO accounts exceeded $585 billion was 2012, when defense spending topped $645 billion. In nominal terms, the Pentagon’s base budget has never been as high as this year’s request, surpassing the second highest request of $530 billion, also in 2012.
But with the possibility of sequestration looming, following a two-year reprieve provided by the Ryan-Murray budget deal, Congress will need to bring base spending down to the BCA caps, do away with the caps altogether, or create another alternative. Thus the onus is on Congress to agree to a deal to avert sequestration. But President Obama hopes such a deal might include additional revenues, while Republican Members of Congress hope it might include cuts to entitlements—the same old narrative that makes it feel like less than a coincidence that the budget was released on Groundhog Day.
Over the long term, the president’s request calls for an even bigger increase in base Pentagon spending, to $570 billion in 2020, with a placeholder of $27 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). This figure, if it holds, remains a relatively small decrease in spending for the OCO account. As US combat operations phase out in Afghanistan and US troop levels continue to draw down, a corresponding decrease in funding should be expected. But the president’s request sets the stage for an OCO account that would be just as resilient as the budget caps, with neither likely to go quietly. After having drawn criticism for including spending unrelated to the wars in the OCO account, the request promises a plan to phase the OCO account back into the base budget by 2020; however, that will remain to be seen. The president specifies that the proposal will “not be possible if the sequester-level discretionary spending caps remain in place.”
While the Pentagon may have resigned itself to retaining a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, its overall budget reveals a continued focus on other major weapons systems. The plan includes $10.6 billion for 57 F-35 fighter jets, $1.6 billion for 19 V-22 Ospreys, $3.4 billion for 16 P-8A Poseidon aircraft, and $1.9 billion for three Littoral Combat Ships, among others. Big spending on weapons is offset by calls to retire the A-10 fleet, launch another BRAC round, and institute greater TRICARE healthcare reforms. However, these are all measures that lawmakers have resisted in the past.
In addition to these major requests, the FY16 budget previews the next decade of nuclear weapons spending, setting up a major financial liability for future Navy and Air Force budgets. The FY16 request includes funding for the Long Range Strike Bomber, eventually slated to total around $80 billion, the Ohio-class replacement submarine, estimated to add up to at least $90 billion, and upgrades leading to replacement of US land-based nuclear missiles.
On January 22, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report that estimates that nuclear weapons spending will total $348 billion between FY 2015 and FY 2024. A National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review estimates the cost will total $1 trillion over the next three decades.
With such a costly plan on the horizon, the Navy has already begun to advocate for a separate fund to buy new submarines for its leg of the nuclear triad, and the Air Force has floated the same idea for the remaining two legs. The problem is, the money has to come from somewhere. A separate fund would simply move funds from the Air Force and Navy budgets into the defense-wide account, shoving defense-wide (rather than Air Force or Navy) programs out of its way and leaving the Army with an even smaller budget share—a move that is sure to add to an already-shaky relationship between the Army and its slightly more spoiled siblings.
Coming on the heels of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission’s (MCRMC) final report, compensation reform will be on the minds of many lawmakers as they review the Pentagon’s request. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated in a speech at the National Defense University in April 2013 that “over a 10-20-year period, we’re not going to be able to sustain the current personnel costs and retirement benefits. There will be no money in the budget for anything else.”
If nothing is done to lift or work around the BCA caps and stave off sequestration, defense spending, including OCO, will be subject to an across-the-board cut. If Congress is to appropriate at a level that is consistent with current law, some tough choices lie ahead.
Congress must look closely at the tradeoffs as more of the same reluctance to make tough choices just becomes more, and the most expensive programs begin to crowd out those that are essential to the Pentagon’s core mission.