Robert Hale stepped down as Pentagon comptroller on June 27. (Defense News files)
Robert Hale has been the man who has managed the Pentagon’s money through more than three years of budgetary uncertainty. He has planned for numerous government shutdowns, managed the Defense Department through one last fall and executed sequestration cuts to the DoD budget in 2013.
After more than five years on the job, Hale stepped down as comptroller on June 27, the same week the White House announced it would request $60 billion for the war in Afghanistan, know as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget. He will be replaced by his deputy, Michael McCord.
Q. Historically, we were looking to move stuff out of the OCO into the base. Then it looks like we have gone the other way for a couple of years. President Obama recently announced he would add some extra stuff this year.
A. The two funds the president announced will be in the Counter Terrorism Partnerships Fund and the European Reassurance Initiative. They will be part of this initiative and it goes to the Hill. And I agree with you that it is an expansion. I am not, unfortunately, able to give you numbers. It will be significantly below the $79 billion placeholder that was in the budget we submitted in Congress.
Q. Any themes this year?
A. Well I suspect it will do the things OCO always does. It will support the troops in Afghanistan. That is coming down. There are troops outside of Afghanistan that are there for dual-use purposes that are not coming down as much. And it will have the support functions, things like resetting the money to fix equipment that is coming out of Afghanistan, Afghan National Security Forces.
I suspect the biggest news will be the two funds, even though they are not dominant in terms of total dollars. They are new. And that always attracts interest.
Q. Is there any Iraq- related security assistance or anything like that?
A. There is a small amount of money in there for the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq as there was in ’14. But there is nothing associated with different issues because frankly, the president has not made a decision about what we will do there.
Q. Typically, this is the time of year where we see a giant reprogramming.
A. There will be one. I think it will not be as large. And frankly, the timing of it has been influenced by the fact that we are doing the OCO budget now.
And there will not be quite the same urgency as the last two years. The last two years, frankly, we badly needed that reprogramming — to get through the year two years ago with pretty much full readiness. Last year, just to minimize the damage to readiness. I do not see that this year.
Q. Clearly your tenure, especially the last few years, has been very uncertain budgetarily. Are there any types of reforms? Are you guys looking at the budgeting process differently?
A. What we desperately need is a Congress and administration that can agree on a budget and preferably a plan that gives us some sense of where we are heading for several years. And given that the Congress has got, at least right now, houses under control of either party, Congress could agree on that probably as they did the bipartisan budget and then could get it through the president.
Two years ago, as we were facing the potential for sequestration, I did not think anybody believed it was going to happen. The president of the United States said it was not going to happen. In the debates, most of the congressional leaders said no way. And so yes, we were planning in broad terms. But what we did not do until into fiscal ’13 was actually hit the brakes. And then we had to hit the brakes hard.
I think this year will be more circumspect. I mean ’15 is not going to be a problem because we all agreed on the number. It will be a lean year. As we head into ’16, my guess is we will be more circumspect, maybe hit the brakes lightly, and slow things down until we see where we are headed and whether we are going to get a budget that exceeds the Budget Control Act.
Q. You talked about [readiness] being the place where you go to make up money. Have you heard from a budgetary perspective any discussion of smart and strategic ways to reduce readiness? Do you just cut the money and leave it to the services to figure out? Or have you heard about a more methodical way to find savings from that big gold mine?
A. Yes, the Air Force stopped flying. We got 12 combat squadrons on the road. The Army stopped sending troops through the combat training centers, accommodating training events. Yes, we will be more strategic if we have to do it again because we will have more time to plan.
As I said, we will hit the brakes more lightly, but earlier if we have to. Obviously, you are going to take the units that are furthest from deploying and probably allow some degradation there.
We have dug a hole in readiness. We need to recover. I have generally said, certainly over this five-year plan, we can get back to where we were before.
Q. Is there a target when you want to get to that recovery?
A. Well, I think the services have said generally they will get there by the end of the five-year plan under the president’s budget. But I think a couple years out into the president’s budget we will be in better shape.
But you build up problems. I mean if you stop flying and then all of the sudden a group of pilots do not get certain training, then it is harder for them to make that up. And that is what we are doing right now, trying to gradually get back to where we were.
At the same time, obviously, it is a pretty intense world. And so it is conceivable we could see some increased deployments in Europe coming out of the Ukraine issues.
Q. Are those readiness cuts distributed only among the services, and then they make the judgement call? Is there any talk of having someone step in and look at all the capabilities?
A. When we do budgeting, we give the services a target. It is broadly informed by this strategy. But it does not go down to even a level of readiness versus modernization. We allow the services to come in and give us a plan. We call it the Common Program Objective. And then we view that plan at OSD.
Q. You mentioned Europe and potentially additional deployments. Has it been determined yet how that money will be invested?
A. No. I mean we have done a few things, small ones, not at company level increases and rotational presence in some of these. But very small, we are talking handfuls. And so no, we have not made specific decisions. And it could be governed by world events and where the highest issues are.
Q. Can you just lay out the upcoming budgetary schedule for us?
A. Well, for fiscal ’16, it is a pretty traditional schedule in the late fall — August, early September. And [the services] are working now on this program objective memorandum that I spoke about; they have been given targets for budgets. They will come up with a plan. And then the review of that ensues in the fall. The goal of a budget is the first week in February. We have not done that yet.
Q. Of the current marks that are going through Congress right now, what is causing the most concern in the department?
A. Well the House bills were disappointing, especially the authorization bill. It rejected most of the forced cuts, not every one of them. They let us make some of the end-strength cuts, for example, for fiscal ’15. But they did not allow us to retire the A-10s, the U-2s. They did not allow us to put the cruisers into phase modernization.
The House [Appropriations Committee] actually did allow the A-10 retirement, but that was reversed on the floor. And the House rejected almost all of the compensation cuts.
Q. Do you think it is time that Congress and DoDhave another Goldwater-Nichols type set of reforms? It just seems that no one can agree on anything. Is it time to go and do something like this?
A. Goldwater-Nichols was an organizational reform as opposed to judgments about how far you go and force cuts. And I think right now the major problem we are having with the Congress is that they are unwilling to let us cut forces because they are concerned about world events. And so are we. And they are unwilling to let us make compensation changes.
Q. Do you feel that the Pentagon just does not have as many advocates on Capitol Hill as it used to? Obviously, the department’s budget has been on a level of chaos that it has not seen before. Why is that?
A. There probably is some truth that there has been a growth in members of Congress who think that the importance of slowing or cutting spending is brighter and they are willing to take some more risk in defense. And the end of the wars musters that position. And I think you find some numbers in the tea party and others who would say that is the case.
Ironically, though, we do not want to make cuts, but we are willing to if Congress is just willing to let us do the things that we feel we have to do. The House Appropriations Committee showed a great deal of courage, allowed us to retire the A-10s, which we need to do but do not want to. [But] it lost by on the floor and was not even close.
So I do think the Congress is contradictory at the moment. They want to cut the money, but they do not want to cut the stuff. And that is a dilemma. ■