The Pentagon’s 2016 Budget Will Focus on the Pacific

U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force ships are underway at exercise Keen Sword 15, on November 19, 2014.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Chris Cavagnaro

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U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force ships are underway at exercise Keen Sword 15, on November 19, 2014.

Even though U.S. military airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the humanitarian response to the Ebola are at the forefront, the Pentagon’s next budget will still focus on the Pacific. By Marcus Weisgerber

The Pentagon’s 2016 budget proposal will focus investments heavily on pivoting the military to the Pacific and continuing security operations in the Middle East, according to defense officials and experts.

That means continued investments in high-end weapons, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Air Force’s new Long-Range Strike Bomber.

In the 2016 budget plan, the Defense Department will “refine and to focus in on that strategic guidance” and “align more tightly” with the Pacific-focused plan laid out in the Defense Strategic Guidance announced by President Barack Obama in January 2012, Jamie Morin, the director of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, said this week at an investors’ conference in New York.

“You should expect the department to continue to press for base realignment and closure authority,” Morin said a few days later on Friday during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“You should expect the department to continue to press for aligning our force structure properly to the strategy,” he said. “You should expect the department to continue to press for smart compensation reform and smart reforms to get cost out of our management overhead and other sources of overhead cost.”

DOD is putting the finishing touches on its 2016 budget proposal, which is slated to head to Congress in February. The Pentagon and White House are in the final phases of the back-and-forth negotiations that go into building a $500 billion-plus budget.

We need additional topline for emerging and additional requirements
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The military leadership is convinced the Pentagon needs more money for 2016 than it thought it would need one year ago, but exactly how much is up for debate. The extra funds are needed for operations in Iraq and Syria to combat Islamic State militants, beefing up forces in Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the military’s humanitarian response to the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa.

Last year, the Pentagon said it would need $535 billion for the military, a number that is $35 billion over federal budget caps, also known as sequestration. 

That does not include funding for operations in Afghanistan or the ISIS fight, which is paid for through a separate budget called Overseas Contingency Operations. But military leaders believe DOD needs more.

“We need additional topline for emerging and additional requirements,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Nov. 19 at the Defense One Summit, referring to the baseline budget number.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, said: “We are talking about the adequacy of that level of funds to do the things that we need to do in the world.” Kendall’s comments came at the same investors’ conference held on Tuesday in New York and sponsored by Credit Suisse and McAleese and Associates. 

The military’s top four-star general and admirals – a group that includes the Joint Chiefs and combatant commanders – stressed their wariness about being able to carry out Obama’s Pacific-focused strategy during an October meeting with the commander in chief at the Pentagon and again this past Wednesday evening during a dinner meeting at the White House, according to sources.

Without the extra funds, the military’s training and the ability to respond to a crisis, a factor called readiness, would suffer uniformed officials argue.

Sources say the Pentagon will likely submit a 2016 budget plan at the $535 billion level proposed a year ago. That budget plan will also ignore federal spending caps in projections for 2017 through 2020, much like the Obama’s 2015 defense plan, these sources say.

But the wild card is the Overseas Contingency Operations, which is not subject to budget caps and has been used in recent years to soften the blow from spending caps.

Striking a Balance

The military services have been trying to “get the right balance” in modernizing themselves for the future, Kendall said.

“I think they’ve taken slightly different approaches to that,” he said. “I think a lot of it depends on how the service leadership views the future of the service and how it wants to position itself in the future as well as take care of present requirements.”

Kendall said Air Force planners are “striking a reasonably good balance” by investing in three major programs for the future, the F-35, the new bomber and a Boeing-built aerial refueling tanker. At the same time, the Air Force has called for retiring the A-10 attack jet and other older aircraft. But so far, Congress has rejected those aircraft retirement plans, which budget officials say will take billions of dollars away from new projects in the coming years.

On the other hand, the Army has focused maintaining a large force of soldiers, which has led to weapon programs suffering, Kendall said.

“The Army is, I think, hewing itself toward trying to hang onto force structure,” he said. “And its modernization programs have suffered significantly because of that. I am worried about that.”

If the Pentagon budget goes down to the $500 billion cap in 2016, there will be massive cuts to weapon programs and the size of the military over the next five years, Morin said in New York. That includes buying one less F-35 squadron, “significantly delay the program” and driving up the cost of each jet for U.S. and allies.

DOD officials say the constant threat of sequestration not knowing if Congress change or remove defense spending has hampered its ability to plan for the future. 

“I think the threat of sequestration is maybe counterintuitively almost as damaging as the reality because of the instability it introduces to the planning process,” Morin said

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