As in the past, lawmakers are lamenting a looming military readiness crisis.
Not surprisingly, the solution to the “problem” remains the same: increasing the Pentagon’s budget, pretty much without question or debate. How? Make it a matter of life or death. The House Armed Services Committee even went so far as to issue a press release claiming 42 service-members died in the summer of 2017 because of budget stinginess. The ghoulish practice of exploiting military tragedies (which have little to do with money) to score political points, is hardly new, as the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has shown over the last year.
Congress, particularly the members of the armed service committees, seized on a rushed consolidated appropriations process to increase defense spending in the 2018 omnibus funding bill, allotting a near-record $654.7 billion in base and overseas contingency operations defense spending. A closer look at how Congress actually appropriated the funds reveals their true intention, which has little to do with readiness and a lot to do with shiny new toys that benefit the defense industry.
Military readiness encompasses myriad activities under the operations and maintenance (O&M) label. It includes such things as buying fuel and ammunition, funding the education and training of the troops, purchasing replacement parts, and paying for major repairs on vehicles. If we are to accept Congress’s premise of a “readiness crisis” and how they define the causes of it, O&M funding is what it will take to solve it.
Congress allotted $230 billion for operations and maintenance, according to the summary of the spending bill released by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The same bill also provides for $67.8 billion to purchase new aircraft and ships. On the surface, it would appear that Congress places a higher priority on the operations and maintenance. When you look at the funds Congress provided above those requested by the services, however, a different story emerges.
The $230 billion for operations and maintenance is $2.43 billion above the Pentagon request. The summary boasts of adding $550 million specifically for the services to “improve military readiness, including increased training, depot maintenance, and base operations support.” Whereas Congress added $12.9 billion above the figure requested by the Pentagon to purchase ships and aircraft. That is a 19 percent increase the Pentagon didn’t ask for to buy new equipment, compared to a mere 1 percent increase to solve the supposed “readiness crisis.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee summary document is telling in another way, too. It is rather vague on how the operations and maintenance funding will be spent, although it does provide an explanation about how the services will be given some flexibility as to when they can spend the additional funds. Appropriators are quite explicit, however, as to how the additional procurement funds will be spent. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to) $2.9 billion for 20 additional Lockheed F-35s and $510 million for three Boeing KC-46A tanker aircraft.
The summary also mentions funding for a total of 14 new ships for the Navy to the tune of $23.8 billion, although the figures are not broken down per ship. This includes funds for three Littoral Combat Ships, two more than the Navy requested. Buried inside the actual omnibus bill, we find that these three ships will cost $1.57 billion or $522 million apiece (and that’s just for the ships, not the mission modules necessary to perform in combat).
Nevertheless, the Navy has already signaled its intention to move beyond the poorly conceived LCS program in favor of a new frigate design. Congress added the extra ships in large part to keep the shipyards in Mobile, Alabama, and Marinette, Wisconsin, working. Appropriations committee members include Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). Industrial base concerns are important, but when they’re the only remaining justification for a program, they amount to an admission that the product was never worth the investment. They also demonstrate that the keening about a “readiness crisis” is often just a subterfuge for more pork-barrel spending.
The military is, without a doubt, having difficulty maintaining some of its equipment. The United States has been at war continually for nearly 17 years, enough to stretch any military force, though many people in the know doubt that this amounts to a crisis. Whatever the case, Congress’s invocation of “readiness” to funnel money into pet projects is detestable and should be called out.
(Ret.) Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. He currently serves as a national security and military analyst for the Center for Defense Information’s Straus Military Reform Project in Washington, D.C. He Tweets @Dan_Grazier