Neller: With Budget Uncertainty, ‘There Are a Whole Lot of Things We Can’t Do’
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The armed services are trying to adapt to the new national defense strategy and the return of great power competition, but they need more budget certainty and would like a two-year budget that would allow them to buy the systems they will need for that threat at lower prices, the Marine Corps’ top officer said Jan. 25.
Asked the effect of going into the fifth month of the fiscal year under a restrictive continuing resolution, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller said service had “made plans based on what we thought would be in the budget,” including buying a significant number of things that were needed. “That’s not going to happen.
“The biggest problem for me, is the uncertainty. It hangs over you like a cloud,” Neller told a Center for Strategic and International Studies audience.
“There are a whole lot of things we can’t do,” he added, including the plan to expand the force by an additional 1,000 more Marines. “But I can’t pay for them.”
Neller said the recently released defense strategy was “a good document” that prioritizes a number of things, including force structure, capability, threats and forward presence.
For the Marine Corps, he said, the focus was on forward-deployed forces, forward posture “to reassure our allies.”
But the new threats from Russia, China and Iran mean that “for the first time in many years, we will have to operate inside an A2AD environment,” he said, using the acronym for anti-access, area denial. “We have to ask ourselves, are we survivable in that environment?”
Neller noted that “for many years, we haven’t had to think about fighting to get to the fight,” because the military was fighting non-state opponents that did not have high-tech capabilities such as air forces and long-range precision fires. “That’s not the way it’s going to be.”
Returning to budget issues, Neller said the main impact of the three-day government shutdown was “we had Reservists show up for duty, and we had to send them home.”
And he recalled that after the longer 2013 shutdown, some of the government civilian workers in the repair depots left for the better certainty of the private sector.
The biggest problem with the recurring budget uncertainty, he said, is “we can’t plan, can’t take a longer view” and cannot issue affordable contracts. “We need a budget, we need a multi-year budget,” that would allow the services to get lower prices for larger buys.
Neller also noted the funding climate would make some experienced Marines leave because they needed more certainty in their lives.
Reflecting on the Corps’ image of always forced to do more with less, the commandant said, “Marines never ask about money. As you grow up in the Marine Corps, you ask for nothing, and get less.”
Neller took a dim view of the provisions in the latest defense authorization bill to give the service chiefs a bigger voice in acquisition.
“The Congress has asked that the service chiefs have more accountability in the acquisition process. OK, that’s fair.” But, he added, “if we’re to be more accountable, certain things have to change.
“Everyone wants to go fast,” but there are so many obstacles in the acquisition rules and the ability of losing contractors to protest a contract award. “The process is just not inherently designed to go fast.”
To improve acquisition, he said, “everybody has to up their game. … But part of that is, we have to have a budget.”