The US armed services have come to rely heavily on supplemental budgets to fund training and overseas operations, though some in Congress may be tiring of the tens of billions worth of extra funding. (US Navy)
WASHINGTON — A source of potential conflict arose during this morning’s hearing with US Army leadership at the Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee, when Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., warned that supplemental wartime funding, which the Army has said it needs well after the war in Afghanistan ends, may not be forthcoming.
Given the pull of other national priorities, the Army’s request for three to four years worth of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding after the US pulls out of Afghanistan is in peril, the senator said, bluntly warning the generals that “the Army must face the reality that this may not be achievable.”
While the supplemental budget has decreased markedly over the past several years, the 2015 request remains in limbo, with US forces still unsure what mission — if any — will remain in 2015 and beyond. The White House has put a $79 billion “placeholder” line in the budget for 2015, less than 2014’s $85 billion request.
Minutes after Wicker’s comment, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell interjected in his own previously prepared opening statement that the need for postwar OCO “is not news.” Campbell insisted that “in about 2004 we started saying already that we would need OCO to help us do resets. So that’s been a constant theme for your Army” for at least a decade, he said.
The subject didn’t come up again, but it did provide a bit of a preview of the tensions that further OCO requests will likely raise between the services and Congress in coming years.
The Army has relied heavily on the tens of billions of dollars worth of OCO funds provided to reset and replace war-damaged equipment as it came home from Iraq and Afghanistan. But it still has tens of thousands of ground vehicles, helicopters, weapons, communications equipment and unmanned systems in Afghanistan that will need to be refurbished in the coming years.
That equipment does not have a funding line in the base budget, and there is no money to add in an already stretched fiscal environment, service officials contend.
The Army has said that it estimates the cost of resetting its equipment coming out of Afghanistan at about $9.8 billion, $3 billion of which has been allocated in the 2015 request.
And it’s not just the Army that is concerned.
All of the services have come to rely heavily on OCO budgets to fund all manner of training, advising and humanitarian assistance activities across the globe, and many operations in the increasingly important continent of Africa are funded through the supplemental budget.
At a March 27 hearing of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., stressed that Congress “must find a way to migrate the billions of dollars in funding for these essential and enduring activities from the OCO to the base budget.” He added, however, that he is not advocating a blank check.
“That does not mean we will stop providing vigorous oversight of the OCO budget or that hard choices will not have to be made,” he added.
Testifying at the March 27 hearing, the Navy’s deputy chief of naval operations, Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, sounded just as concerned as his Army counterparts, offering that the Navy has an “enduring need for supplemental funds” after the 2014 Afghanistan drawdown date in order to continue operations in the Middle East and off the east and west coasts of Africa. This high level of operations is “not sustainable within our baseline budget” he said.
During the same hearing, Marine Lt. Gen. Glenn Walters, the deputy commandant for programs, offered that a full 40 percent of the Corps’ $9 billion fiscal 2014 operations and maintenance account comes from OCO, and as the force leaves Afghanistan “we’re still going to need the OCO for the reset two, three years.”
In a sign of just how reliant the services have become on the billions provided in more than a decade worth of supplemental funding, the Air Force relies on OCO for about 13 percent of its overall budget, including 20 percent of its operations and maintenance budget.
Despite all of this, Wicker’s comments clearly showed that congressional acceptance of supplemental budgets is wearing thin. As their requirements come down with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it remains to be seen whether the services will be able to reset and modernize in the way they had originally envisioned.