WASHINGTON — By presenting the majority of its fiscal year 2017 defense supplemental funding request as base budget dollars rather than special war funding, the Trump administration has set itself on a collision course with Congress, top Pentagon budget officials confirmed Thursday.
John Roth, the acting comptroller for the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. Anthony Ierardi, director of Force Structure, Resources and Assessment (J8) on the Joint Staff, confirmed that the $30.9 billion supplemental request will require Congress to pass language changing caps put in place by the Budget Control Act — something analysts were quick to point out is unlikely to happen.
Of the supplemental request, $25 billion is in base budget funding, which will largely go towards equipment — including adding five F-35 joint strike fighters, buying 24 new F/A-18E/F planes for the Navy, and giving the Army 20 new AH-64 Apache helicopters. There is also a wide-ranging investment in munitions, something the Pentagon has expressed concern about over the last two years.
Another $5.1 billion is earmarked for four specific areas: $2 billion for the broad fight against ISIS, $1.1 billion for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, $1.4 billion for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria and $600 million for the Counter-ISSI Train and Equip mission.
All told, the supplemental, if enacted as is, would bring the defense base funding to $549.6 billion and the OCO funding to $69.7 billion, for a total of $619.2 billion in fiscal 2017 requests.
Roth acknowledged that the request would require changes to the defense caps, saying "ultimately what will happen is the administration will have to work with congressional leadership" to figure out a way forward.
One potential solution would involve sliding more of the money into OCO, which is why it was surprising to many analysts to see the Pentagon put an emphasis on base budget spending with the supplemental. But Roth defended that move — a move previously backed by Office of Management and Budget head Mick Mulvaney — as the right way to do business.
"We put the money where it belongs, to be quite honest with you. The $25 billion is legitimately base budget kinds of things — training, maintenance, those kinds of things," Roth said. "The $5.1 billion is purely in support of the overseas contingency operations. So we’ve tried, at least for the get go, we’ve tried to play that exactly as it is.
"Does that create a legislative challenge? The answer is yes it does, and we will be there to work with" Congress on a solution, Roth added.
"Five billion comes from OCO, but the other $25 billion is in the base budget, which requires increasing the budget caps for fiscal 2017," Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Thursday. "That’s unlikely to happen because changing the caps requires 60 votes in the Senate, and this proposal also includes $18 billion in cuts for non-defense in fiscal 2017 and $3 billion for the wall. This means the fiscal 2017 supplemental is unlikely to pass as proposed."
And speaking the day before the budget dropped, Roger Zakheim of the American Enterprise Institute predicted that If House Speaker Paul Ryan has to choose between a showdown in his own caucus or telling the defense hawks that "for now can you pick your number of billions and let me throw it into OCO, [Ryan] probably takes that deal."
While discussing the planning that went into the supplemental, Roth noted that major changes happened between the initial unfunded list requirements submitted by each service shortly after the FY17 budget was delivered to the Hill and today’s supplemental request.
Those changes, he said, were largely driven by two factors: the Trump administration’s plan to increase the force structure, which required more funding, and the reality of operating under a Continuing Resolution six months into the fiscal year, as any funds now appropriated would need to be spent by the end of September.
The services had to take a realistic look at whether they could spend all the money they had initially requested. Roth said about $2 billion to #3 billion was cut from each service’s initial request as a result, with those projects being pushed instead into the FY18 plan. That funding was largely ticketed for Operations and Maintenance requirements, Roth said.
Added Ierardi, "with respect to training, there is physics involved. Training plans can be bent to accommodate a focus on increased warfighting readiness, but there is only a six-month period" to spend it in.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.