OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Hagel makes budget case to Congress

Hagel said that the new package of military compensation proposals took into account congressional concerns from last year’s budget.

In addition to new and increased healthcare fees, the Pentagon is proposing a 1 percent pay raise for servicemembers, down from 1.8 percent in 2013.

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It could be even more difficult to get lawmakers to agree to a new round of base closures, which has bipartisan opposition.

The Pentagon’s $526.6 billion budget for 2014 is $52 billion above the caps imposed by sequestration, which prompted criticism that the budget would be rendered meaningless.

The 2014 budget reduces defense spending roughly $150 billion over the next decade compared to the 2013 request, which helps cover the deficit reduction to undo sequester.

The funding levels for 2014 are roughly equal to the House and Senate budgets that passed last month, although the Obama budget has less defense spending than the House and more than the Senate over the 10-year window.

Obama opposed base closures in budget: President Obama isn’t making things any easier for the Pentagon to win over skeptical lawmakers on base closures.

Obama told a Virginia television station last July that he was opposed to new rounds of closures from the Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission.

“You know, I don’t think now is the time for BRAC, we just went through some base closings and the strategy that we have does not call for that,” Obama told WAVY in a July 2012 interview.

The Pentagon’s request, of course, included a new round of base closures in 2015.

Lawmakers have already said they will reject BRAC, and the House Armed Services Committee held a pre-budget hearing designed to tell Congress it wouldn’t accept the base closures this year either.

The issue is sure to get sharp questions from lawmakers at the hearing Thursday.

Defense cuts drones: The Pentagon is slashing its investment in unmanned drones across the board, cutting just over $1 billion from those programs in the department's newest budget proposal. 

The drone cuts were part of the $45.4 billion request for all military aircraft in the department's fiscal 2014 spending plan, the brunt of which fell to the Air Force, which owns and operates the majority of the Pentagon's arsenal of armed and surveillance drones. 

The service's MQ-9 Reaper drone took the biggest hit, with Pentagon number-crunchers slashing procurement of the military's newest attack and intelligence drone from 24 planes in 2013 to 12 this fiscal year. 

That cut, from $1 billion in 2013 to $506 million for 2014, should save the department roughly $500 million, according to the Pentagon budget blueprint. Spending for the MQ-1 Predator, which the Reaper is slated to replace in the coming years, was also reduced by $200 million.

The reductions come as somewhat of a surprise, given the Obama administration's aggressive use of armed drone strikes in counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups worldwide. 

At the same time, the White House is considering shifting all armed drone operations to Pentagon control. Currently the Pentagon and the CIA operate their own armed drone programs. 

Under the Obama administration’s proposal, the CIA would continue to supply intelligence on possible targets, but actual control over the drone strikes would fall to the military. 

Navy ships win big in DOD budget: Nearly all of the Navy's shipbuilding priorities are receiving funding increases in the Pentagon's new spending blueprint, despite the fact that the Defense Department is bracing for roughly $150 billion in budget cuts over the next decade. 

Submarines ended up being the biggest winner in the Navy's $23.3 billion shipbuilding portion of the Pentagon's $527 billion defense budget sent to Congress on Wednesday. More than $1.6 billion has been set aside to continue development and construction of the sea service's new fleet of attack and nuclear-armed submarines, according to the Navy budget plan. 

The Navy also received a nearly $900 million increase to its new Ford-class aircraft carrier program. That money will finance the Navy's work to complete the first ship in that class — the USS Gerald R. Ford — and begin work on the second ship, dubbed the USS John F. Kennedy. 

The Navy's highest-profile program, the littoral combat ship, ended up receiving the smallest increase, with a $53 million bump in the FY 2014 budget plan. The slight uptick will go toward procurement of four new warships scheduled for 2014. 

The new ships will allow the Navy to patrol shallow water and coastal areas, particularly those along the Strait of Hormuz near Iran and the Gulf of Aden off Africa's eastern coastline. 

Lawmakers blast explanation for sexual assault dismissal: Lawmakers are not happy with the explanation provided Wednesday for dismissing an Air Force sexual assault verdict, a case that could prompt changes in the military’s judicial code.

Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday criticizing the explanation that Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin provided for dismissing a guilty verdict against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson in February.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said the explanation “crystalizes” why commanders should not be able to dismiss verdicts in a post-trial review.

“This letter is filled with selective reasoning and assumptions from someone with no legal training, and it’s appalling that the reasoning spelled out in the letter served as the basis to overturn a jury verdict in this case,” McCaskill said in a statement.

Hagel had ordered a review of the case after lawmakers were livid with the dismissed sexual assault guilty verdict. Defense officials said Monday the review found that Franklin followed the military’s judicial code.

But the case out of Aviano Air Base in Italy prompted Hagel to recommend that Congress amend military commanders’ ability to toss out guilty verdicts in a post-trial review.

The Associated Press reported that Wilkerson listed 18 reasons in his written statement for dismissing the verdict, including that the victim did not accept requests for a ride home, had trouble identifying parts of the house and didn’t remember the assailant’s mustache.


In Case You Missed It: 

— US ready for North Korea missile test

— Obama includes base cuts in DOD budget

— GOP slams Obama on defense spending plan

— Analysts blast DOD budget for ignoring sequester


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