An “unfunded priority” should be an oxymoron. As noted previously, if an item is not funded in the Pentagon’s budget request, it means something else was prioritized over it. Unfortunately, Congress is all too eager to play Santa Claus and the military services are already providing their wish lists.
Unfunded priority lists are items that would have been included in the defense budget request had additional funding been available for them. Because resources are always limited, even during flush times, prioritization is key. The essence of strategy is being able to prioritize given available resources. Items left out of a budget request are by definition not priorities.
As touched on here briefly, Congress is looking to use the military services’ unfunded priority lists as a political cudgel to raise the Pentagon’s topline budget another $15-$23 billion for fiscal year 2017. Speaking to Politico earlier this week, Ohio Representative Mike Turner, an influential member of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “The unfunded requirements are not just going to be wish-list items, they’re going to be real items that should have been funded… that we’re going to have to put back.”
But “wish lists” are exactly what the unfunded priority lists are. And the military services are happy to make the requests. According to Politico’s “Morning Defense” newsletter on Thursday:
The Air Force is asking $691 million to fund five additional F-35s, and the Navy wants $270 million for two of its carrier-variant F-35s, according to the military services’ “wish lists” that are being sent to Capitol Hill. The details from the unfunded requirements lists, obtained by POLITICO, are likely to serve as roadmaps for Congress to add back funding if defense hawks are successful in raising the Pentagon’s topline – or if cuts are found elsewhere in the budget.
In all, the Navy is asking for $4.9 billion in defense funding in its unfunded requirements list . The service wants $1.5 billion to fund 14 more F-18 Super Hornets and $433 million to finish funding an additional DDG-51 destroyer. In addition to the F-35s, the Air Force wants $724 million to replace eight C-130H transport planes with C-130Js, as well as $145 million to grow the service to 321,000 active airmen, according to a $2.9 billion list of its top five unfunded priorities.
As Politico’s Jeremy Herb notes, that the lists leaked before even reaching Congress suggests that the military services are as interested in getting the extra funding as some legislators are in handing it out. The unfunded priority lists serve the ends of everyone involved.
What the lists do not serve is fiscal discipline, sound strategy, or the Pentagon’s own desire to innovate. With the country facing increasing deficits again, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and entitlements sacrosanct, learning to live within relative resource constraints—relative given the actual size of the defense budget—is imperative for the Department of Defense. As noted above, strategy demands prioritization and these lists obliterate that demand. And finally, as discussed here previously, plowing funds into existing systems is likely to further the services’ organizational prerogatives and stifle innovation.
The unfunded priority lists went away for a time under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but Chuck Hagel resurrected them at the behest of former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon. A year ago, McKeon’s successor, Mac Thornberry, and his Senate counterpart, Senator John McCain, expressed ambivalence toward the lists—with the latter describing them as “sort of a backdoor way of getting things done.” Unfortunately, that distaste seems to have waned.