U.S. Military Stretched by Strategic Demands That Outpace Budget

President Barack Obama’s $534.3 billion spending request for the Defense Department, a 7.7 percent increase, comes amid warnings of a growing gap between what the military is asked to do and the funding needed to do it.

The core defense budget request, which exceeds federal budget caps by about $36 billion, sets the stage for a contentious debate in Congress about the constraints imposed by budget rules and how to align defense strategy and spending.

That challenge is compounded by the reality that the U.S. is facing “security challenges more diverse and complex than those we have experienced in our lifetimes,” Marine Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in congressional testimony prepared for a hearing Tuesday.

Any decrease from the president’s request “will require adjustments to our defense strategy,” U.S. Navy Admiral James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.

“Ultimately, it will mean reduced American leadership and freedom of action, and that’s, of course, an option, but not one that I think most of us would prefer,” Winnefeld said. “I’d underscore that when I talk about reductions, I’m not only talking about reductions down to sequestration, as the service chiefs testified to last week. I mean anything below the level that we’re submitting.”

While tensions over defense spending levels are familiar, service chiefs and defense analysts say what is different now is the toll from the 2011 budget law, including the mandatory across-the-board cuts known as sequestration that took effect for a time in fiscal 2013 and are due to resume on Oct. 1 after being eased for two years.

‘Strategy-Resource Mismatch’

“We do have a big strategy-resource mismatch, and it only seems to be growing,” Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy institute, said last week, after an outline of the spending request began circulating.

The near-term fiscal strains on U.S. forces have taken a toll on readiness and retention, while longer-term issues include countering new threats, such as the proliferation of precision munitions, and paying for future systems and big-ticket procurement programs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.

The Pentagon on Monday presented a $2.77 trillion spending plan for the next five years, a buildup that would exceed existing budget caps by $155 billion, or 5.9 percent. The Department of Defense five-year plan calls for spending $547 billion in fiscal 2017, $556 billion in 2018, $564 billion in 2019 and $570 billion in 2020.

Rebuilding Request

The department’s budget overview describes the fiscal 2016 request as one that supports rebuilding “after several years of declining defense budgets.”

Yet Harrison said the Pentagon is unlikely to get as much as it’s seeking, which would put renewed pressure on spending for weapons systems. The Pentagon’s weapons-buying plans will get scrutiny from the new Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Mac Thornberry of Texas and John McCain of Arizona, both critics of the Defense Department’s procurement practices.

Even if the president’s fiscal 2016 request is fully funded, which is unlikely due to requirements of the 2011 Budget Control Act, defense spending would fall far short of what was envisioned as recently as the 2012 defense strategic guidance document, which set basic strategic requirements, or in the spending trajectory to meet them in Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget.

‘Can’t Be Executed’

There is a “mismatch under way” that means that “the strategy most certainly can’t be executed” at budget act levels, said Kathleen Hicks, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, who was involved in developing the 2012 strategic guidance when she was a deputy under secretary of defense.

The $534.3 billion base Defense Department budget for fiscal 2016 doesn’t include funding for defense-related programs at other agencies, such as nuclear weapons activities at the Energy Department, which bring the total request to $561 billion, 8 percent more than this year’s spending.

Among other elements, the administration is supporting major nuclear modernization programs that would cost $348 billion over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Budget constraints may force incoming Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to revisit questions about whether to maintain all three legs of the air-land-sea nuclear triad, while Stewart said that Russia and China are both upgrading their strategic nuclear forces.

War Operations

Also separate is the war-operations request that the Pentagon makes each year. For fiscal 2016, the administration is seeking $50.9 billion in such Overseas Contingency Operations funds for the Defense Department, 21 percent less than this year, mostly to pay for troops remaining in Afghanistan and the fight against Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria.

This budget comes at a time that is not only fraught politically, with Republicans critical of Obama’s handing of foreign security challenges from the civil war in Syria to China’s territorial claims, but also more challenging strategically.

‘I believe this is the most uncertain I have seen the national security environment in my nearly 40 years of service,’’ General Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “The amount and velocity of instability continued to increase around the world.”

Asymmetric Threats

Further, the growth of asymmetric threats, from the rise of Islamic extremists using social media to cyber-attacks from North Korea and Iran, adds to the perennial debate about whether the U.S. military is preparing for the next war -- or fighting the last one.

One former military commander who argues that the Department of Defense isn’t adapting quickly enough is retired Army Lt. General David Barno, who led U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

“DoD must continue to invest in conventional war capabilities to deter potential adversaries from concluding that the age of U.S. military superiority is over,” Barno, a distinguished practitioner in residence at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, wrote in an analysis last week. “But in many ways, the United States continues to over-invest in those capabilities compared to the increasingly urgent -– and potentially existential -– threat posed by today’s massive societal vulnerability to asymmetric attacks.”

Eroding Technological Edge

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said at a budget briefing on Monday that many elements of U.S power are eroding from underinvestment and rapid technological change.

The nuclear force is increasingly costly to maintain pending modernization in the 2020s and 2030s, and “unprecedented threats” to vital capabilities in space require spending on “resiliency measures,” he said. The proliferation of precision-guided munitions, which imperils the ability to project U.S. power, requires spending on systems to mitigate that threat.

Those longer-term issues compete for funding with the more immediate woes described by Odierno and other service chiefs: The Army says only a third of its brigade combat teams meet readiness requirements, and the Navy is having difficulty retaining fighter pilots, SEALs, nuclear-trained officers and skilled sailors.

‘Significant Cutbacks’

If spending is held to the budget caps, the Air Force will be getting $21 billion a year less than projected in the fiscal 2012 budget, said General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, who testified with Odierno and Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, on Jan. 28. That would force further “significant” cutbacks that would hit key airborne intelligence and surveillance capabilities, he said.

“Just last week, top military officials told Congress that if Congress does nothing to stop sequestration, there could be serious consequences for our national security, at a time when our military is stretched on a whole range of issues,” Obama said in releasing his budget.

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