By Tony Bertuca
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey warned senators last week of the brewing budget pressures the Pentagon continues to face in light of sequestration and the White House’s new, open-ended commitment to degrade and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
While the administration is seeking $500 million from Congress to begin training and equipping vetted Syrian rebels, Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 16 that they should expect the Defense Department to make broader funding requests when the fiscal year 2016 budget is submitted in February.
“The budget that we will be coming up here presenting, as you know, in a few months, will contain what we believe is going to be required to carry forward for the longer term this effort, but in the short term this is why we’re asking for the $500 million authority for the train and equip,” Hagel said. “One of the things that we’ve been warning about is sequestration over the last year and a half. So we will come forward in our budget for the next fiscal year with some new requests.”
Dempsey noted that DOD’s budget projections over the next five years should now be considered overly conservative because they were based on the assumption that Congress would allow the Pentagon to cuts costs by reforming compensation packages, cutting excess infrastructure, and terminating aging weapons programs.
“We didn’t get any of those, actually, or very few of those, and the commitments have increased,” he said. “We do have a problem and I think it will become clear through the fall.”
Dempsey added that DOD’s expected budget shortfalls cannot be solved by adding more money to the overseas contingency operations fund, which is outside the caps mandated by sequestration.
“It’s not a problem that we can solve just with OCO,” he said. “There’s a base budget issue here too we have to get at.”
The White House submitted a $58.6 billion OCO funding request to Congress in July, on top of a $496 billion base budget request for DOD. Congress approved a continuing resolution September 17 that would fund government at FY-14 levels until December11, providing an OCO budget that is $25 billion above the president’s FY-15 request.
The estimated price tag to fund the new campaign of expanded airstrikes to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria has not yet been released, but DOD has stated that America’s recent operations in Iraq have cost approximately $7.5 million per day since June 16.
Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee was unwilling to authorize the additional $500 million requested by the White House to train and equip Syrian rebels, though the committee has introduced a measure that would allow the Pentagon to pay for the effort by reprogramming existing funds.
“This amendment does not authorize additional funds, but does allow the Department of Defense to submit reprogramming requests to Congress, should the President request DOD funds to execute this authority,” according to a summary of the amendment released early last week. “This amendment, as requested by the President, would authorize the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups or individuals.”
The amendment, which would be part of a larger continuing resolution to fund government through December 11 at FY-14 levels, would also allow the acceptance of “foreign contributions.” Saudi Arabia has agreed to host the training program and is willing to provide financial assistance as well, Hagel told the senators.
The House and Senate both approved the CR and the Syria amendment last week.