By Leo Shane III
U.S. military operations in Afghanistan will end this year, but bills for the war will be coming in until at least 2017.
Army and Marine Corps officials told Congress on Thursday that they will need at least three years of overseas contingency funding after the last troops leave Afghanistan, to pay for repair and reset of equipment.
Navy and Air Force leaders said they expect to continue relying on the funds too, at least for a few more years.
“We don’t have enough money in our baseline budget to do what we’re asked to do now,” said Lt. Gen. Burton Field, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
Pentagon officials haven’t provided their war funding estimate for fiscal 2015 yet, citing unresolved questions surrounding the ongoing security agreement with the Afghan government. For this fiscal year, money for overseas contingency operations — known as “OCO funding” — is expected to reach $85 billion.
Over the last decade, that “temporary” war funding has been used to fund not just combat operations but also a host of other — and critics would argue unconnected — overseas missions.
Service officials said less than half of the funds now pay for activities in Afghanistan. OCO money also is used to pay in part for U.S. missions in Africa, base support costs in Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ship deployments around the globe, and increased end-strength expenses.
Watchdog groups have railed against the continued use of OCO money as a slush fund to enhance the military’s base budget.
At the same time, lawmakers have eyed the impending drawdown of the war accounts as a potential deficit reduction maneuver, counting the “saved” costs of decreased spending against other programs.
But service chiefs warned that billions of dollars in so-called war spending will still be needed in coming years, unless lawmakers find ways to expand base budget spending to absorb the lingering costs.
Lt. Gen. James Huggins, Army deputy chief of staff for operations, said service officials are cutting soldiers and programs to meet congressionally mandated spending caps. Getting rid of the overseas contingency funds too soon, he argued, could lead to “hollowness” in the force.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, said he would support an ongoing overseas contingency fund past this fiscal year, but “we must find a way to migrate the billions of dollars in funding for essential and enduring activities from the [contingency funding] to the base budget.”
Huggins and representatives from the other services said they are working on that, but emphasized it will be a multiyear process. And, they added, that assumes that enough military funding is awarded to cover both those war-related costs and existing service needs.