Moving funds from approved defense budgets is unwarranted and unwise

Moving funds from approved defense budgets is unwarranted and unwise
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The Department of Defense budget process faces a crisis of credibility. On Feb. 13, the administration informed Congress that it is reprogramming $3.8 billion from the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to fund 177 miles of fencing for President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE’s border wall with Mexico. Less than a week later, the service chiefs sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees a series of “unfunded priorities lists” that included some of the very same programs whose funds had just been diverted in the reprogramming action.

A reprogramming action involves the movement of congressionally-appropriated funds from one account to another. It has been standard practice for the Defense Department (DOD) to request approval from the Armed Services Committees and Defense Subcommittees of both houses of Congress prior to moving funds to another account, unless they fall below specified thresholds, which differ by account but are uniformly exceedingly low. The Trump administration in the past has sidestepped this system, including by declaring a national emergency at the southern border, thereby enabling it to move money without congressional approval.

The administration sourced $3.8 billion for the border wall by drawing upon $2.2 billion in the approved DOD FY 2020 “base” budget, as well as an additional $1.63 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations account. The transfers resulted in cuts to a number of procurement efforts across the services to reach the desired total. Included in the cuts were two F-35B short takeoff and landing aircraft, two Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, a P-8 submarine-hunting aircraft, four C-130J cargo aircraft, eight Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, and $180 million from a light attack aircraft program. What was noteworthy about these cuts is that, with the exception of the P-8, all of these reductions were to additions that Congress had made in approving the FY 2020 defense budget. 


The administration reportedly will follow up with another reprogramming action that would divert congressionally-approved military construction dollars to support further expansion of the wall.

Yet, even as the DOD was transmitting its reprogramming action to Congress, the service chiefs were finalizing their unfunded priorities lists, which they forwarded to congressional leaders on Feb. 18. The Air Force list included $171 million in advance funding for the F-35A aircraft, even as $150 million had been taken from the previous year’s fund to support construction of the wall. The Air Force has acknowledged that it cannot reach its goal of procuring 72 aircraft a year in five years’ time. The proposed reduction in advanced funding for the F-35 simply pushes the service even further away from its goal.

The Air Force also requested nearly $600 million in additional military construction funds. Such a request would seem to undermine any future case for reducing congressionally-approved military construction money to finance the wall. This is especially the case since, in previous fiscal years, the DOD diverted several Air Force military construction projects to fund the wall. 

The Navy’s priority list includes the same two Ospreys that the administration’s FY 2020 reprogramming request proposes to drop. Although the Navy did not list the P-8 as an unfunded priority, that aircraft is of special importance to NATO allies and partners, especially the North and Baltic Sea littoral states. Leading officials in those countries consider the P-8’s state-of-the-art submarine tracking capabilities to be critical to NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression.

Finally, the Army’s unfunded priorities list includes a variety of military construction projects, including numerous barracks and child development facilities. As with the Air Force request, the Army’s proposals could fly in the face of any additional reprogramming reductions in FY 2020 military construction funds to provide more money for the wall.


The current defense budget falls significantly short not only of the goals expressed by the service chiefs, but also of the funding objectives laid out by the Commission on National Defense Strategy. The plan to redirect funds included in last year’s budget exacerbates this shortfall. Moreover, by moving congressionally-approved funds out of the defense program, the administration weakens its own efforts to press America’s allies, especially the NATO allies, to increase their own defense expenditures.

Political partisans will continue to debate whether more funds should be allocated to extending the border wall with Mexico. What should not be a matter of debate, however, is whether DOD budgets should provide a source for that money. At a time when there is widespread consensus that the military faces emerging threats from Russia and China — a development that the United States has not witnessed since the Sino-Soviet split of the mid-1950s — cutting defense programs that have been signed into law is both unwarranted and unwise.

Both Reps. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithChina is rapidly expanding its nuclear force: Should the US be concerned? House panel wants probe of F-35 breathing issues Senate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget MORE (D-Wash.) and Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (R-Texas), the respective chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, have voiced their unhappiness with the administration’s reprogramming action. Smith is preparing a bill that would block the reprogramming. The House and Senate should support him with a veto-proof majority. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.