Sailors aboard the US Navy destroyer Paul Hamilton conduct a safety inspection off Hawaii. The Navy Department is expected to receive an additional $14.7 billion in fiscal 2016, but experts doubt that number will materialize. (US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The US Navy would get the largest chunk of the additional $36 billion the White House is considering giving to the Pentagon for fiscal 2016, according to defense sources.
The revelation comes as the Pentagon and White House finalize the Defense Department’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal, which includes the increased 2016 projection. But without a repeal or modification to the Budget Control Act, the increased funds would be subject to sequestration to bring them in line with existing budget caps, perhaps forcing cuts in other areas.
Should the Pentagon receive additional funds, sources said it would be dispersed among the services: $14.7 billion for the Navy Department, which includes the Marine Corps; $8.7 billion for the Air Force; $7.6 billion for the Army; and $5 billion for US Special Operations Command.
So how much stock should be put in the extra money materializing in 2016? Not much, budget experts say.
“Anything in the out-years and beyond is fictional anyway,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgets during the Clinton administration and is a professor at American University.
The only thing certain is the top line of the Pentagon’s 2015 budget request, which is capped at roughly $496 billion under a bipartisan deal agreed to in Congress last year, said the House Armed Services Committee vice chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
“Speculation about what comes after that in ’16, ’17, ’18, though ... is not going to count for much,” Thornberry said during a Feb. 2 taping of the TV show “Defense News With Vago Muradian.” He is a favorite to succeed committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who is not seeking re-election.
Adams argues that talking about a defense budget plus-up could prove dangerous, particularly if the money does not materialize and existing budget caps remain. That’s because the military services could rely on that money in their planning. He also said this could disrupt current defense drawdown plans.
“The time for them to get real is now,” Adams said.
Thornberry said Congress would approve a defense budget for 2015 that is in line with the spending caps approved in a bipartisan federal budget deal signed last year.
“This year, we know it’s set,” Thornberry said. “Both the authorizers and appropriators know what we have to work with, and while that’s a more stable and better situation than we’ve had before, it also puts more pressure on us because then we have to make those choices within that budget.”
The Pentagon, with its 2015 budget proposal, is expected to submit a $26 billion unfunded priority list of items that just missed inclusion in the spending plan.
“Having that next tier of items that just missed making the president’s budget is a useful thing for us to have, to ask questions about and perhaps make different judgments about. I think it is a helpful thing to know what it is,” Thornberry said.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the administration” of President Barack Obama, he said. “I think it’s possible they want to generate some demand for more defense spending so that they can increase domestic spending as well. I’ve heard that speculation. Whether that’s successful in the coming years, we don’t know.”
At the same time, the Pentagon’s war budget — previously known as the supplemental, now called overseas contingency operations (OCO) — is expected to drop substantially in 2015, regardless of US troop levels in Afghanistan, sources said.
Numerous critics have accused Pentagon officials of inflating DoD’s 2014 war budget request, which dropped only $9 billion from the 2013 request, despite halving the number of troops fighting in Afghanistan.
DoD officials have said the increased costs are associated with removing equipment from the landlocked nation. Lawmakers increased that 2014 request by $5 billion in the final defense spending bill.
Some believe the OCO request, like previous years, will not be part of DoD’s budget request that goes to Capitol Hill next month.
“I don’t expect we’ll see the OCO for about a month after the budget [is released],” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Sources said the Pentagon’s 2015 OCO request could be in the $25 billion to $40 billion range, especially if Afghanistan does not agree to allow US troops to remain beyond the end of this year.
Eaglen predicts the OCO request will be in the $60 billion range.
“In my mind, they have to delay the OCO until Obama makes a decision [on troop levels], and he seems to be in no mood to make any decision on the Afghan force levels for the US for a while,” she said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to preview some of the major decisions in the 2015 defense budget on Feb. 24, sources said.
The Obama administration is scheduled to send its 2015 budget proposal to Congress on March 4. ■
Vago Muradian contributed to this report.