WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has requested to reprogram $600 million in funding and plans to ask Congress for more supplemental dollars to deal with a series of natural disasters that have left the Air Force and Marines reeling, according to a new memo obtained by Defense News.
Signed by Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan and dated March 23, the memo is addressed to the service secretaries and chiefs of staff of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. In it, Shanahan writes that “Our primary challenge is hurricane and storm damage, which we estimate at just under $9 billion across multiple fiscal years.”
In the memo, Shanahan notes the Pentagon has submitted to Congress a “$600 million prior approval reprogramming request for near-term hurricane recovery actions sourced from within our own budget. Shanahan adds, “We understand the effect on readiness if Congress does not approve the reprogramming action.”
In addition, the acting secretary says he plans to “work with Congress to enact a supplemental to cover hurricane, storm, and flooding recovery costs that the Department is not typically expected to absorb.”
A series of natural disasters inside the U.S. have left the Air Force and Marines, in particularly, searching for ways to cope with large, unexpected bills.
In September, Hurricane Florence roared through North Carolina, inflicting damage on the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune. The Corps has since put a price tag for repairs at $3.6 billion, a number that could still rise.
In October, Hurricane Michael hit Florida and pounded Tyndall Air Force Base; the pictures were so stunning afterwards that some questioned whether the service should simply abandon the location rather than try to rebuild. In February, the department put a $3 billion price tag on repairs there, spread over five years; however, more recent estimates from the service have ranged between $4.5 and $5 billion.
And earlier this month, the Air Force was hit again, as dramatic floods overwhelmed Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. According to a senior administration official speaking on background, the Pentagon is still assessing repair estimates. However, photographs and statements by senior leaders do not paint an optimistic readout of the situation.
“Frankly, we have more bills than bill payers at this point,” John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and industry, told reporters last week. “Without supplemental funding, we’re put into the realm of unfavorable alternatives. Something has to give there.”
To exacerbate the situation, the department has also been drawn into operations on the border with Mexico, yet another unexpected expense compounded by President Donald Trump’s decision to use previously appropriated military construction money to fund a border wall.
Some of those funds are likely to come from military construction funds currently tasked to the damaged locations, including $25 million from Lejeune and $17 million from Tyndall.
The Pentagon hopes to replace that money through a special emergency fund in its fiscal year 2020 request, which also contained an estimated $2 billion for hurricane repair. However, that fund has met with resistance in Congress, particularly from House Democrats.
The politics of the border deployments and wall have raised the threat from some Democrats, including leading members in the House defense committees, of pushing back against reprogramming attempts from the department.
Asked about that concern, the administration official expressed hope the Hill would acknowledge the weather damage is on a scale that “DoD would not normally be asked to eat out of its own hide. So yes, there are things in the environment right now politically, but this is something that Congress would normally give us a supplemental for.”
Based on the memo’s timestamp, it would have come out the day after the Los Angeles Times reported that Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller had warned that the service is suffering from “unacceptable risk” to its readiness, in part because of unplanned deployments to the border.
Notably, Shanahan starts his memo by writing to the service officials that he shares “your concern and commitment” about the “readiness and lethality of our force.”
“As you know, the Department has already set aside sources for some priority bills, including funds to cover the cost of current operations on the border,” he writes.
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.