Two F-15E Strike Eagles wait to receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker on Jan. 23, 2015.

Two F-15E Strike Eagles wait to receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker on Jan. 23, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron J. Jenne

Pentagon Unveils $585 Billion Budget Request

While the Pentagon will enjoy a peace dividend of sorts, the latest proposal still keeps the military on a war footing.

The Pentagon unveiled its fiscal 2016 budget proposal of $585 billion on Monday, an increase over last year’s budget in recognition of the military’s wide-ranging need to respond to global conflicts in places like Liberia and Eastern Europe, buy new equipment and modernize the force.

The Pentagon’s baseline budget proposal is $534 billion – an increase of about $38 billion over last year. The administration’s request for its war chest, the military’s separate Overseas Contingency Operations account, which pays for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels and other operations, is less than it was last year. The $51 billion request for the so-called “OCO” budget is about 21 percent less than the enacted operations budget last year.

Even as new operations begin in Iraq and across the Middle East as a train-and-equip program for Syria gets underway, the Pentagon will enjoy a peace dividend that reflects downsized operations of the 13-year war in Afghanistan. But the budget still ignores congressionally-mandated budget caps.

Indeed, the Pentagon’s 2016 budget proposal will remain a question mark until new leaders in Congress decide whether to raise defense spending caps. The Obama administration has again sent Congress a defense budget proposal that ignores spending caps as Pentagon officials argue they are too small to carry out the Pacific-focused military strategy known as the Asia Pivot, which Obama put forth in 2012.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 limits 2016 defense spending at $500 billion, meaning the Pentagon would see its budget cut by about $34 billion. The cuts would be equal, across all spending accounts, however it is likely that Obama would exempt soldiers' pay as he did when sequestration began in March 2013.

The budget proposal includes $107.7 billion for new weapons, a significant 15 percent increase over 2015. 

The Pentagon’s nose-snubbing to budget caps is a political move aimed to send a message to many members of Congress that defense spending can’t be cut easily, or certainly in the way the Budget Control Act of 2011 mandates. Submitting a budget in compliance with the caps would send a signal that the Pentagon could do just as well with less, and that’s not a message the Pentagon is willing to convey.

(Find more of Defense One's FY2016 budget reporting here)

“I think the reason they’re submitting a budget request above budget caps is political,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow and budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington. “They really believe we should be spending more on defense, so they don’t want to communicate to Congress or to the public that they would spend less if they submit a budget, a budget cut to that level… They may be afraid that Congress would respond, ‘You know, that’s not so bad.’”

The budget proposes investments in the modernization of “key capability areas” such as nuclear deterrence, space, missile defense, cyber security and “power projection,” according to documents provided by the Pentagon. In addition, the budget proposal amounts to a second (or even third) ask for other budget proposals it has failed to get through Congress in recent years, like changes to the number of troops and structure of the Armed Forces, base closures, sexual assault prevention programs and other programs for troops and their families.

For their part, defense officials sought to portray a dangerous world even as the war in Afghanistan ends. That uncertainty, they argue, underscores the need for budget flexibility – or, more bluntly, more money.

“As the Department rebalances the Joint Force after 13 years of war, it confronts an uncertain fiscal environment in the absence of congressional action to reverse sequestration,” according to Pentagon documents. “The geopolitical events of the past year only reinforce the need to resource DOD at the president’s requested funding level as opposed to current law.”

Ash Carter, nominated to succeed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday for what promises to be a contentious confirmation hearing over Obama’s policies. But Carter is expected to ultimately sail to confirmation and could even be sworn into office after full Senate confirmation within a week. Unlike most years, in which the sitting defense secretary would appear before Congress immediately following the budget unveiling, Congress will this year await Carter’s full confirmation before inviting him to Capitol Hill to defend the budget. Those hearings may not occur until next month; in the meantime, Congress will hold budget hearings for the services, combatant commands, and other military commands that will start as early as this week.

Big-ticket items in this year’s budget proposal include $10.6 billion for 57 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters; $3.4 billion for 16 P-8 maritime patrol aircraft; $1.3 billion for five E-2D command-and-control planes; $3 billion for development of the KC-46 tanker; and $1.2 billion for a new Air Force bomber.

The budget proposal also includes $11.6 billion for nine new Navy ships, $1.4 billion for a new nuclear missile submarine and $55 million to upgrade Littoral Combat Ships. The Navy also included $678 million to overhaul the USS George Washington aircraft carrier.

Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.