SECDEF, Joint Chiefs Chairman Face Grilling Over Diversion of Defense Funds for Border Wall
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
The nation’s top defense officials heard bipartisan opposition to the plan to shift military funds to build the Mexican border wall and to the attempt to bypass the budget control act’s spending limits by putting $98 billion of routine programs into the overseas contingency funds, which are intended for nonrecurring war costs.
During four hours of occasionally acrimonious debate before the House Armed Services Committee on March 26, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, also faced opposition to the administration’s fiscal 2020 budget’s proposal to retire the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman 25 years early and to buy fourth-generation F-15 fighters rather than more fifth-generation F-35 joint strike fighters.
Committee members came down on both sides of President Donald Trump’s desire to create a “Space Force” as a separate military service, although House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith led what looked like a majority in objecting to the increased bureaucracy and costs of the space service.
The committee’s top Republican, Mac Thornberry, joined Smith in warning that Congress would not approve the total of $174 billion in OCO funds, which Smith called an “irresponsible” gimmick to avoid negotiating an end to the 2010 budget act’s caps on all discretionary spending. Use of OCO funds, which do not count against the BCA limits, would be a way to boost defense funding without allowing an increase in the domestic programs that also are restricted by the act.
Smith and Thornberry noted that Congress’ two-year agreement to set aside the BCA allowed major increases in defense spending in fiscal 2018 and 2019, which sparked a reversal of the prolonged decline in combat readiness and in the near moratorium on modernization. Both warned that a return of spending caps would stop those improvements in the face of increasing threats from Russia and China.
No Republican publicly disagreed with the two committee leaders on that issue.
And there was little support for the Pentagon’s search for defense funds to divert to border security, while numerous members expressed concern about the possible loss of funding for military construction programs in their districts and what Smith and others called a violation of Congress’ constitutional authority over how federal dollars are spent.
Shanahan and acting Pentagon comptroller David Norquist tried to assure committee members that none of their projects would be cancelled or delayed by the diversion of money to the border this year. Norquist said any funds diverted this year would be returned in 2020, if the defense appropriations bill is passed on time. He said other money for border security would come from 2019 money the Army could not spend because it fell far short of its recruiting goal and from unspent Pentagon money intended for drug interdiction.
Bipartisan opposition emerged to the plan to skip normal midlife nuclear refueling and overhaul of the Truman in favor of mothballing the carrier, with members noting that the early retirement would drop the active carrier force to nine while the law requires a force of 12. Seapower subcommittee leaders said the Navy already has spent $500 million to buy the two new nuclear reactors for Truman and that skipping the refueling would save only $17 million next year.
There also was no vocal support from the committee for the budget proposal to buy eight updated F-15s from Boeing at the expense of purchasing six fewer Lockheed Martin F-35, despite previous defense policy to accelerate the move to the fifth-generation fighter.
Shanahan and Norquist said the goal was to maintain a balance in the fighter mix and argued that the acquisition cost of the two were about equal but the sustainment cost of the F-35 was higher.
Committee members mostly supported long-range plans to modernize all three legs of the nuclear deterrent triad, despite the enormous cost of building new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, new B-21 strategic bombers and to modernize the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Smith, however, has argued against the full plan and appeared to consider the Minuteman a lower priority.