WASHINGTON — The $585 billion fiscal year 2016 defense budget request — so painstakingly sculpted by White House and Pentagon before being sent to Capitol Hill this week — will likely die a long, complicated death as it winds its way through the congressional committees, analysts say.
"I don't think it's likely DoD gets anything close to what they're planning right now," Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), told a group of reporters on Jan. 30.
The reason is that the request blows right past the $499 billion spending cap that Congress imposed in the 2011 Budget Control Act for the coming fiscal year, and one dollar over that cap would automatically kick in sequestration, which cuts and burns all programs across the board to meet the cap number.
The DoD "is still using the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance as its basic strategy framework," added Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), on Jan 29.
"It updated that in the 2014 [Quadrennial Defense Review], but it's essentially the same strategy ... and that strategy was built $100 billion ago. Sequestration's effects are not yet fully felt, but the strategy most certainly can't be executed at those budget numbers. So there is a mismatch underway. And the White House's approach to that appears to be putting the budget above sequestration."
The request — which includes $534 billion in base budget funding along with a $51 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO) — is the latest attempt by the White House to spur Congress to move the markers on the Budget Control Act numbers.
The request is also lays the groundwork for a contentious debate within Congress over spending priorities, and guarantees another several rounds of tense hearings with the service chiefs and (presumed) Defense Secretary incoming defense secretary Ash Carter on Capitol Hill.
While some feel that a Republican-controlled Congress is good for the defense budget, the party hardly speaks with one voice when it comes to increasing defense spending, and the relevant committees in charge of overseeing the budget will likely demand "tradeoffs between defense and non-defense discretionary spending," said Ryan Crotty, deputy director for defense budget analysis at CSIS during a budget briefing on Jan. 29.
"Mandatory spending and revenues will really be the big questions," he said, "because that's what's going to be required to increase defense spending above the sequester caps."
In fiscal 2016, the Air Force is asking for $152.9 billion ($16 billion over the enacted amount for 2015), while the Navy Department is looking at a $161 billion request ($11.8 billion over 2015) and the Army's request is $126.5 billion, or about $7 billion more than last year, according to briefing slides from the Pentagon's comptroller office.
When it comes to the $51 billion supplemental wartime request, $42 billion of that will go toward the advising mission in Afghanistan — which has leveled off at 10,900 US troops — with $7.8 billion earmarked for the reset and retrograde of equipment.
The proposed budget also calls for $177.5 billion in procurement and research spending, an increase of $20.4 billion — or 13 percent — over 2015.
The number is in line with what the Pentagon projected it would need in its fiscal 2015 budget request. While it does represents a sharp uptick, it does have anhistorical precedent in the 17 percent jump the same accounts saw between the 2002 to the 2003 budgets, when the Rumsfeld Pentagon was first beginning to push its modernization initiatives.
But there is no guarantee that those numbers will hold. If Congress begins cutting, it will likely leave the accounts that fund the politically sensitive compensation and benefits for service members alone, meaning the procurement and modernization lines will be on the chopping block.
"If you're industry, that's creating a high degree of uncertainty" said CSBA's Harrison. Congress is saying tighten the budget, but DoD continues to go full speed ahead with its procurement plans, and "if the budget cap doesn't get raised very much, it's the acquisition funding that is most at risk."
Crotty echoed those concerns, saying that "we know that procurement took the most significant hit under the sequester scenario." For the future years defense plan (FYDP) — the DoD's five-year spending blueprint — procurement consumes roughly 18 percent of the budget, "but it would have had to take about half of the cut to get down to sequester over the FYDP," he said.
Even if Congress passes the budget as is and kicks in sequestration, the cuts don't necessarily mean that every account in the DoD budget is in danger of an equal hit, Harrison added. "If they go above the caps, then Congress would get to choose how the cuts are made," and Congress would likely go after unobligated money from previous years first.
"Maybe they could get $10 billion there, and another thing they can do is push money into the OCO budget … but the fiscal hawks don't like that."
Congressional committees could then delay some programs, slip some schedules and push some programs to the right, but Harrison said that it would be difficult to make up that $34 billion through these tricks alone without inflicting some real pain in many areas of the Defense Department.