Armed Services Chairmen Warn of Training, Readiness Damage from Keeping Continuing Resolution
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The chairmen of the two armed services committees stressed the urgency of passing the fiscal 2017 defense appropriations, including a $30 billion supplemental, and warned that keeping the restrictive continuing resolution (CR) would stop training and crush combat readiness.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry said if the military is forced to live with a CR for the remainder of the fiscal year, “all but one deploying Army unit would cease training after July 15. That includes units scheduled to deploy to Europe and Korea. The Marine Corps will cease all flight operations in July and have to get rid of over 2,000 Marines.”
Thornberry also noted that “half of The Navy’s airplanes can’t fly” due to lack of spare parts and maintenance.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain agreed and added that the Air Force is 1,000 pilots short, and without additional funding more will leave because “they are flying less hours than their Chinese and Russian counterparts.”
The current CR, which limits most spending at last year’s levels and stops most new acquisition steps, expires April 28.
The two chairmen said the next essential step would be approving a fiscal 2018 defense funding bill providing the $640 billion they have agreed was necessary to begin reversing the drops in readiness and force levels, which they blamed on President Barack Obama’s administration.
But enacting 2017 appropriations at the $619 billion level in the National Defense Authorization passed by Congress last year and signed by Obama, which they both support, could require repealing or modifying the 2011 Defense Budget Act (BCA) with its strict spending caps and sequestration enforcement tool. A 2018 appropriation for $640 billion definitely would exceed the caps.
In their joint March 22 session with the Defense Writers Group, neither of the Republican lawmakers addressed how they expected to do that over the resistance of GOP deficit hawks and Democrats who will insist on also lifting the caps for domestic spending, which would increase the budget deficit even more.
“Fiscal responsibility is important, but national security is more important,” McCain said.
“We can’t wait to fix our ships and airplanes until we can balance the budget,” Thornberry added. “That’s not fair to the men and women defending our country.”
If the 2017 appropriations bill follows the authorization, enough of the total spending could be placed in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which is not limited by the BCA.
Thornberry said he expected the supplemental would be considered OCO funding and McCain said he did not care what label was put on it.
Both chairman are strong advocates of greatly increasing the Navy’s battle fleet from the current 285 ships to at least 350. But they agreed that a rapid buildup would be hampered by the reduction in major ship yards over the last decade and a shortage of skilled shipbuilders.
“You cannot flip a switch and all of a sudden fix these problems,” Thornberry said. “However, we can get a start on fixing those problems through the [fiscal 17] appropriation and the supplement.” And, he added, “the problem we have is not only with the Navy not having enough ships, we can’t use all the ones we have because we can’t fix them.”
“It’s every aspect of shipbuilding,” McCain said, citing his repeated calls for “acquiring alternatives” to the littoral combat ships and aircraft carriers, such as the new Gerald R. Ford class, both troubled programs.
Because Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News, Va., shipyard “is the only game in town” for building carriers, “it makes it hard to keep the cost under control,” he said.
Although McCain has tried repeatedly to stop the Navy from buying 55 LCSs and to start a new frigate program, he noted “we’re already committed to a number of them, but would I very much would like to stop them after what we’re committed to.”
The two chairmen dodged direct answers to questions about whether President Donald J. Trump’s credibility on national security issues is suffering due to his controversial tweets, including the claim that Obama “wiretapped” his New York City offices.
Both said they were pleased with the national security experts surrounding Trump, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine general, and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMasters as national security adviser.
“No doubt, as allies read the news they are confused by some things,” Thornberry said. “I don’t think they are confused about this president’s commitment to rebuilding the military. And the actions mean more than the tweets.”