Budget manipulation jeopardizes defense

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Those who proclaim the new House Republican budget will be good for our nation's defense — they're wrong.

Many conservatives understand the need to boost defense spending above the depressed levels of recent years. But rather than raise defense spending to appropriate levels and offset the increase by authentic, dollar-for-dollar cuts in domestic discretionary spending and structural reforms to mandatory programs, this budget proposal tries to avoid the problem by going around the normal order. That tactic will actually jeopardize our military.

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The budget would allow for upwards of $90 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, an increase of 40 percent from last year. But the hollowing out of our military will not be reversed by a one-shot infusion of "contingency" cash. What's needed is a long-term predictable funding stream.

OCO funding is, by definition, neither long-term nor predictable. Not only will the military feel continued uncertainty, but this approach will add to our national deficit. Given the negative impacts on defense due to sequestration, this budgeting gimmick is all pain and no gain.

Budgeting is about prioritizing. It is about making choices. Exploiting the OCO loophole to get around the Budget Control Act's (BCA) spending cap avoids the politically difficult but very important choices to prioritize defense spending responsibly.

None of this is meant to understate the necessity for real action on defense spending.

Earlier this year, military leaders of all four services came to Congress to provide a stark assessment of the military. After several years of underfunding, including sequestration in 2013, the services are now dealing with a multitude of shortfalls. According to Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, procurement has failed to keep up with the 500 percent increase in missile expenditures in recent years, leaving the Air Force "thousands of weapons below [their] stockpile requirements." Such shortfalls have become commonplace of late.

Due to the sequester in fiscal year 2013, Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, stated that brigade combat teams slated for deployment to Afghanistan only "were trained for the Train and Assist mission required for that theater; they were not prepared for any other contingency operation." To this day, the Army is still trying to rebuild readiness due to insufficient funding.

It is natural for defense spending to taper as a result of foreign drawdowns, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the limits imposed in recent years have gone beyond the "savings" associated with unwinding those wars. They have cut significantly into baseline military capabilities. The Department of Dense (DOD) has had to delay necessary modernization programs to rebuild a military that has been fighting wars for 13 years. It has also had to cut force size across service branches to make ends meet. Even with sustained, increased reinvestment, it will take a long time to overcome the negative effects on our military strength and global posture.

Even as our military has downsized, the demands on it have grown. Including current combat operations, the United States still maintains its commitments to allies, friends and partners, from NATO to the defense treaty with South Korea. These commitments require our forces to be globally present, which is why the Navy still aims to have approximately 100 ships deployed around the globe, and the Army has 140,000 soldiers abroad in almost 140 countries.

At BCA spending levels, the DOD will not be able to sustain current capabilities and will have to continue to make cuts to force size, readiness and capabilities, all of which fall on the shoulders of those in uniform. To illustrate, the Corps will be so small that Marines will have less than a two to one dwell time to deployment ratio. That means a seven months or longer deployment, 14 months in country, followed by another seven months or longer deployment. This pace is difficult on those in uniform and their families and will make it increasingly difficult to retain Marines. What's worse, at BCA levels of funding, readiness for the Corps will be so underfunded that Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commandant of the Marine Corps, stated that "our non-deployed units will not be ready to fight."

The military is engaged in a fight today. Increasing defense spending to $584 billion is critical. Those who suggest that the proposed manipulation of the OCO will nearly reach that desired result are wrong. It completely lacks the necessary commitment to long-term, predictable funding.

No one is claiming that reversing the hollowing out of our military while holding down federal spending broadly would be easy or painless. If that were the case, we wouldn't find ourselves in this situation. But finding a way to responsibly prioritize full funding for defense will be easier than repairing the military in the future, and far less a task than reversing enemy perceptions of U.S. decline.

Needham is chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America. Bucci is director of the Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy Studies.