US soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division wait to leave on an operation at the Forward Operating Base Ghazni. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — The US Defense Department will likely continue asking Congress for war funding separate from the Pentagon’s base budget accounts and not subject to federal spending caps even if all American troops leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, experts say.
The Pentagon will submit a $496 billion 2015 budget request to Congress on Tuesday, a spending plan that does not include money for operations in Afghanistan. The war-funding measure, know as overseas contingency operations (OCO), is being delayed because the Afghan government has not approved a security agreement that would allow NATO troops to remain in the country beyond the end of the year.
Despite US troop levels in Afghanistan falling 40 percent between 2013 and 2014, DoD’s spending request did not decline much. DoD requested $88.5 billion in 2013 and Congress approved $85 billion in 2014, adding $5 billion to DoD’s request.
Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said about $20 billion in Army and Air Force operations and maintenance funding, typically included in the base budget, was shifted to the OCO accounts in 2014. The Army and Marine Corps are funding pay and benefits for 38,000 troops out of the 2014 OCO budget, he said.
The OCO budget is not subject to base budget spending caps, know as sequestration.
“This is an uncapped funding stream that exists for DoD, and both the administration and Congress have been willing to use it to soften the impact of sequestration,” Harrison said on a conference call with reporters Monday.
This practice has “largely offset the cuts to the base budget from sequestration,” Harrison said.
“I think that this is a pretty dangerous situation for DoD to be in with being so heavily dependent on the OCO funding … because that funding stream could disappear quickly,” he said.
If all American troops leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, it will be difficult for Congress and the Obama administration to justify having any war funding after 2015, Harrison said.
Christine Fox, the acting deputy defense secretary, last week said she expects DoD to continue the practice of submitting OCO spending requests beyond 2015.
“I don’t believe it will be the last year,” she said on Feb. 25 at a conference sponsored by McAleese and Associates and Credit Suisse.
“We must reset the equipment that we put over there, we have to get out [and] we have to take care of people that deploy,” she said.
Harrison said there is “an easy justification” for a 2015 OCO request since the next fiscal year begins in October and US troops will be in Afghanistan at least until December.
“In 2016, I could see good justification for still having an OCO request even if there are no more troops in Afghanistan because we would likely still be providing some aid to the Afghan government in theory, as we continue to do with the Iraqi government, although a much smaller scale once we’re all pulled out,” Harrison said.
Even if all US troops leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, Harrison says he expects OCO requests to continue into 2015 and 2016 to cover the costs of repairing and moving equipment back to the US.
“By FY 17, it’s very much possible that there just wouldn’t be a justification for that [OCO] budget anymore and it could completely go away,” Harrison said.
Harrison said he would expect the OCO request in 2015 and 2016 to be “much lower” if no troops remain in Afghanistan.
“It would be harder to justify a $60, $70, $80 billion budget when we have no troops there,” he said.
Harrison says DoD has been funding between $20 billion and $40 billion of operations and maintenance items, such as flying training hours and depot maintenance, from its base budget in the OCO budget.
“If that funding stream goes away relatively quickly over the next few years, DoD is going to have a big bill they have to fit back in their base budget and that’s something they’re not planning for right now as far as we can tell,” he said.
Mark Gunzinger, also with Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, noted in the same call with reporters that the US military’s global operations tempo has increased over the past decade and will remain high.
“We’ll still need to support those other operations, that higher level tempo of operations,” he said.