The White House will submit its budget request for fiscal year 2016 next week, and information about it is beginning to leak out. As Bloomberg recently reported the Pentagon plans to reduce its request for war funding by twenty percent for fiscal year 2016. While this might seem like good news, it is really a slight of hand that allows both Congress and the Department of Defense to avoid making tough choices on defense spending.
The Pentagon’s FY 2016 request for $51 billion will be down from $64 billion for FY 2015. A twenty percent cut in war spending is welcome, but it is not nearly enough of a reduction given the reduced U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan. As Todd Harrison of the Center for Budgetary Assessments explained in regard to the Pentagon’s FY 2015 request, the troop presence in Afghanistan fell by sixty-nine percent from the previous year. The Department of Defense funding request, however, fell by only thirty-eight percent. As Harrison notes, the cost of operations per service member in Afghanistan therefore rose from a historical average of $1.2 million, adjusted for inflation, to $4.6 million. With fewer than 11,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan, the per troop average will increase slightly for FY 2016, even as the overall funding request drops.
Worse than the cost though is the reason behind it. As previously noted, the Pentagon has been using the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account as a “slush fund” because it is exempt from the spending limits imposed by the Budget Control Act. The Department of Defense uses the extra funds to alleviate pressure on its procurement and operations and maintenance budgets. Congress finds this practice useful because it allows individual members to push pork barrel projects that benefit individual districts but do not improve national defense.
The problem is, maintaining the OCO slush fund alleviates the need to make tough choices about the defense budget. The Pentagon can avoid cutting expensive, yet poorly performing weapon systems that offer dubious strategic benefits. Congress can continue to avoid tough questions about compensation reform or closing bases that bring jobs to certain states and districts while being militarily unnecessary.
Even the Heritage Foundation—with a lengthy history of support for ever-higher defense budgets—refers to this practice as “fiscally irresponsible.” The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly fourteen years. Combat operations officially ended before 2015 began. Whatever troop presence the administration and the Pentagon decide to maintain there, it is well past time to fund those operations through the regular budgetary process.