WASHINGTON: Can Congress close the gap between the $603 billion President Trump wants for defense and the $640 billion pro-defense legislators say is necessary for 2018? Yes, we can, says Rep. Joe Wilson, new chairman of the House readiness panel.
“I support (House Armed Services) chairman Mac Thornberry and (Senate Armed Services chairman) John McCain,” he told the conservative American Enterprise Institute this morning. “I believe that we can achieve the 640.”
Yes, getting either to $640 billion or $603 would require lifting the Budget Control Act caps on spending, referred to as sequester. But “I am hopeful and I believe we can address sequestration,” said Wilson, who’s working with Airland chairman Rep. Mike Turner to circulate a letter asking legislators to overturn the BCA. “I was so pleased the President even mentioned it on Tuesday (in his speech) because … that would have been an easy issue to leap over.”
Thornberry and McCain were less than impressed by the President’s proposal. By their math, Trump’s “historic” increase in defense spending — actually just 3 percent above Obama’s plans — is not enough to fix a host of problems, from rebuilding an overworked, superannuated fighter fleet to knocking down decrepit buildings on old bases, Thornberry told reporters yesterday. Expanding on his and McCain’s critique from Monday, Rep. Mac Thornberry showed reporters charts listing all the items he considered necessary that the Trump proposal is too modest to fund:
- upgrading Army and Marine ground forces, especially giving combat vehicles in Europe Active Protection Systems to stop Russian anti-tank missiles ($15.1 billion);
- strengthening the Navy both with new ships, including an additional aircraft carrier, and with better maintenance for the ships it already has ($13.7 billion)
- rebuilding Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fighter fleets by overhauling some aging aircraft and replacing others with new F-35s and Super Hornets ($10.9 billion);
- modernizing capabilities for space, missile defense, and nuclear deterrence ($2.4 billion); and
- improving medical care for wounded troops in the “Golden Hour” after injury ($1.1 billion).
These items go far beyond the Operations & Maintenance (O&M) funding lines that are traditionally equated with readiness, Thornberry acknowledged, but “one of the significant realizations I came to last year in visiting military bases is that you can’t define readiness too narrowly.” For example, he said, the Navy and Marines’ aging F-18 fighters require more maintenance personnel to keep them flying, not just more maintenance dollars, and the best long-term fix is to replace them outright with new F-35s. (Military leaders are leery of being given more troops and new equipment without the commensurate Operations & Maintenance funding to keep them ready, resulting in a “hollow force.”)
Neither the Thornberry-McCain $640 billion nor Trump’s $603 billion includes Overseas Contingency Operations funds, which are exempt from sequestration. Originally an emergency measure to fund post-9/11 wars, OCO has increasingly become a catch-all to evade the BCA. “My guess is when the supplemental (funding for 2017) comes over we may well end up putting it into OCO,” Thornberry said. That’s not a long-term solution, one reporter countered.
“Of course not,” Thornberry replied. “Having base requirements met in an OCO budget makes it much harder for the Pentagon to plan, it makes it harder to get industry to invest, (but) cumbersome as OCO funding is, it’s better than not getting the money.”
Whether by repealing the BCA or bypassing it via OCO, can Thornberry and his congressional colleagues get through to Trump that he needs to spend more on defense?
“We’re trying. How do you ever know whether somebody is really listening?” Thornberry said. “I really have no doubt the President is committed to rebuilding the military. Obviously, he’s got a lot of things on his plate, a limited number of advisors. Whether he has personally had the chance to dig down into the details of what that requires, I don’t know. Do people at the White House understand how much damage has been done over the past several years? I don’t know.”