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On Defense, Obama Punts to His Successor

President Barack Obama sent Congress on Tuesday a defense budget request that reflects his lame-duck status.

With a few exceptions, the fiscal 2017 Pentagon budget would put off to the next administration fundamental choices about personnel levels, force structure and new weapons.

“This really is a punt,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Congress would have it no other way. Lawmakers will not want to box the next president in — either by cancelling major programs or reorienting priorities in a big way. Between that impulse and their parochial desire to protect jobs and campaign contributions tied to defense projects, members will be mostly inclined not to chart many new courses. Still, they may add double-digit billions of dollars to the total Pentagon appropriation

“Congress is likely to want to wait it out as well,” Harrison said.

Flat Budget — For Now

In his new proposal, Obama recommends $582.7 billion for the Pentagon.

The figure includes $523.9 billion for the U.S. military’s core expenses — the so-called base budget — an amount capped by law.

Also wrapped into the $582.7 billion is nearly $58.8 billion for war costs. But that’s just the minimum amount that must be spent for overseas operations. There is no cap on this category of money.

For that reason, there’s probably more money coming to the war account once Congress gets through with it. Since the budget control law capping base budgets was enacted in 2011, lawmakers have regularly provided more for war accounts than was requested.

Hawks in Congress are already angling for more money for defense in fiscal 2017 than the president’s proposal envisions. Doing it by raising the base-budget caps in law would be difficult, especially in an election year. That’s why the war account is the most likely place legislators will put additional money.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee— led by its chairman, Texas Republican Mac Thornberry— wrote in their 2016 “views and estimates” letter to the House Budget Committee on Monday that the defense budget will need at least $15 billion more than the president seeks for fiscal 2017. Thornberry and company cite the fact that the House budget resolution and the president’s own request last year projected higher defense spending in fiscal 2017 than is now being requested.

“As with all Administration budget requests, Congress will consider the individual proposals, but make its own independent judgment on what is needed to defend the country,” Thornberry said in a statement Tuesday.

The Defense Department’s numbers were slightly different. Mike McCord, the Pentagon’s comptroller, told reporters Tuesday that the budget law allows the brass to spend $21.8 billion less than they had wanted in fiscal 2017. But $5 billion of that was funded in the war budget request and another nearly $6 billion was secured via changed assumptions about inflation and efficiencies. That left $11.2 billion in cuts (compared to last year’s plan), which would occur mainly in modernization programs, he said. Comparing procurement to the fiscal 2016 level, it’s down about $6.8 billion, budget documents show.

All told, the president’s fiscal 2017 request is about $2.5 billion more than the current enacted level. That increase would have been devoured by inflation. But something else is going to get there first, McCord said: the cost of a proposed 1.6 percent pay raise for military service personnel — another amount Congress may raise.

“Indeed, at a time when U.S. military deployments are increasing to confront growing global threats, the President’s budget request is actually less, in real dollars, than what Congress enacted last year,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement on Tuesday.

Smattering of Cuts

The new Pentagon proposal mostly avoids cutting programs. The $11.2 billion in weapons that would be cut comes to about 2 percent of the budget. And those are cuts to plans, not cuts to actual spending levels.

Crossed off the wish list were 24 Blackhawk helicopters, nine Apache helicopters and 77 Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, McCord said.

Virtually all other major spending items are untouched. The number of active duty soldiers and sailors is going down slightly, but not more than planned and the number of airmen and Marines is staying the same. The so-called force structure — the number of carrier battle groups, fighter jet squadrons and the like — also was not altered.

What’s more, while the Pentagon is asking Congress once again for authority to close unneeded bases, few expect that to happen, so excess infrastructure will remain in operation. Operations and maintenance spending would go up about $6 billion from this fiscal year to next, partly to keep all those bases running.

Other proposed savings, such as cuts to Army helicopters and proposals to reduce spending on health care or commissaries, may similarly not come to pass.

In some cases where Pentagon officials do propose cutting spending on certain top programs, they make up for it with increases elsewhere. For example, officials announced they would reduce the previously planned buy of Air Force F-35s in fiscal 2017 by five. But the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ F-35s would go up by 13 — a net increase of eight of the planes. Across all the services, 63 F-35s would be bought.

In addition, about two months after Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter started a fight with the Navy over Littoral Combat Ships, he has retreated. The LCS is a shore-hugging vessel that is fraught with questions about her capabilities. Carter pushed the service to buy 40 instead of 52 in exchange for more spending on other weapons. Carter had planned to force the Navy to buy only one LCS ship in fiscal 2017.

Carter still plans to cut the overall number, but he is now asking Congress for a second LCS in fiscal 2017, ostensibly to keep both shipyards healthy for a coming competition.

Bigger cuts to the LCS, F-35 and other programs may be coming in the next few years. But they are not starting in earnest on this administration’s watch. And even if they were, they might be quickly overturned.

The Plus Side

Not only are cuts few in the president’s new proposal, many major programs would see their spending net more than had been planned.

Take the European Reassurance Initiative, a program to deter Russia with more weapons and training on U.S. allies’ territories, plus provide a continuous U.S. Army presence. That money would be quadrupled from the fiscal 2016 enacted level of $800 million to $3.4 billion.

Likewise, the amount dedicated to fighting the Islamic State would be doubled to $7.5 billion, including $200 million to fight extremists in Africa, where they are increasingly taking root.

Emerging weapons would, as a rule, not be scaled back in the new budget plan. These include continued development of a new nuclear-missile submarine, next-generation refueling tankers, cutting edge systems to protect satellites from attack and a burgeoning set of multibillion-dollar cyberwar tools and unmanned systems.

Last but not least, older weapons that the Pentagon had wanted to retire will — for better or worse — remain in service, costing additional billions. For instance, A-10 attack jets, which the Pentagon had previously pushed Congress to retire, will stay in the inventory until at least 2022. And whereas Pentagon officials had backed closing down Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet line in St. Louis, they are now requesting two more of the jets.

So Carter’s plans are in a sense already in the next administration’s hands. He will still write the fiscal 2018 budget request, but the next president will have a chance to tweak that to his or her own liking before submitting it a year from now.

The next president will again have to confront a gap between the Pentagon’s fiscal aspirations and what the budget law allows. McCord says the gap averages about $25 billion a year over the next four years.

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