The Obama administration released its budget request for fiscal year 2016 yesterday. While there is still much work to be done analyzing its implications over both the short- and long-term, some preliminary observations can be made.
The administration is requesting $620 billion in total national defense spending. That amount includes funding for the Department of Defense, ongoing military operations, work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy, and defense-related programs in other departments. As expected, the portion of that total dedicated to the Pentagon’s base budget blows past the limits placed on its spending by the 2011 Budget Control Act. At $534 billion, the request is $35 billion over the spending caps.
Also as expected, the administration is requesting $51 billion in funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO); approximately 20 percent lower than the $64 billion Congress approved for FY 2015. But even that reduction is not commensurate with the reduction of troops in Afghanistan. The disproportionate request reflects the continued use of the OCO account as a slush fund because its exemption from Budget Control Act caps serves the parochial interests of both the Department of Defense and Congress. Some pushback on this practice, however, is starting to emerge in the legislative branch. And to its credit, the administration’s budget message expresses interest in phasing out OCO by FY 2020. It remains to be seen whether that will happen.
As for the composition of the base budget, the Obama administration is requesting $137 billion for personnel, $210 billion for operations and maintenance (O&M), $208 billion for procurement, and $70 billion for research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E). All figures represent increases over FY 2015, but none are likely to be approved at the requested funding level.
Personnel and O&M costs are the leading causes of growth in the Pentagon’s budget. However, this year the administration is projecting a little over 1 percent growth in the personnel account. Unfortunately, the administration’s plans to achieve savings in that account are unlikely to go very far in Congress. The budget request claims savings can be achieved through increases in out of pocket costs for the military health care system (TRICARE); through base closures; and the retirement of the Air Force fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. All three of these measures have been proposed previously. All three have been thoroughly rejected.
Because the Obama administration’s budget exceeds the Budget Control Act spending limits – and because there is almost no chance that law is repealed – one of two things will happen. Either the Pentagon’s budget will be hit with across-the-board cuts as was the case in March 2013, or a bargain along the lines of the December 2013 Ryan-Murray deal will raise the spending caps. Those increased spending limits, however, will be nowhere near the $534 billion the administration is requesting for the Department of Defense base budget. With the Pentagon’s proposed cost saving measures dead on arrival, Congress will most likely turn to the acquisition budget – the combination of the procurement and RDT&E accounts – to comply with either the existing spending limits or any newly-negotiated limit.
These external pressures on the procurement budget exacerbate internal pressure created by the Pentagon’s troubled acquisition programs. Perhaps the most pressure comes from its most troubled program: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
As shown in an analysis of the FY 2016 budget request by the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense, just the procurement funding for the 57 F-35s requested for FY 2016 – not counting RDT&E – comes to $9.2 billion. That $9.2 billion represents 8.5 percent of the entire procurement budget on a single, extremely flawed aircraft. As the personnel and O&M accounts continue to grow, and as Congress continues to stonewall attempts to create room in those accounts, the portion of the procurement budget devoted to the F-35 will increase. And as that happens, the Joint Strike Fighter boondoggle becomes more of a liability for American security. That the Pentagon and the White House continue to ignore that reality is a leading reason its attempts to modernize the remainder of the force will continue to falter.