Army officials are thankful for the funding bump and short-term stability Congress has provided for the next two years, but no time is being wasted in asking lawmakers to continue increasing the service’s topline beyond 2019.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Army Secretary Mark Esper and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the past two years of budget increases have helped to restore what they termed a dire readiness crisis in which less than half of its combat brigades were ready for a near-term fight.
“In short, what these monies have done is stop the steep decline, stopped the bleeding, of the Army and we are on the mend,” Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Two and a half years after I became the Chief of Staff of the Army, we are in significantly better shape through the generosity of the American people and this Congress.”
The Bipartisan Budget Act boosted the Defense Department budget $25 billion in fiscal 2018, of which the Army’s share was $6.8 billion. It also guaranteed funding fiscal 2019, delivering on a clichéd refrain that all senior military officials have made for “sustained, predictable funding.”
Army officials are not waiting for fiscal 2020 to make their case for continued budgetary certainty. Both Milley and Esper warned that reinstating spending caps enacted by the Budget Control Act of 2011 would cast the service back down the readiness spiral it has since crawled out of.
“It’s essential, though, that we maintain these increases, as returning to BCA caps will halt our ability to modernize and it will reverse any recent gain in readiness,” Milley said.
Squeezing back under the budget caps would reduce per-pilot monthly flying hours, now at around 14 hours, to at most 12 and as few as 10, Milley said. Home-station training and Combat Training Center rotations for brigades preparing to deploy would come to a halt, he said.
“It would not be good if we went backwards and if the intangibles – the effect on morale, cohesion, enlistment, re-enlistment … all of those things would take steps backwards,” Milley said. “I would strongly encourage not to do that.”
Sen. Tom Cotton ( R-Ark.) said the committee should not “spike the football” over the two-year budget agreement and seek to deliver budgets on time beyond 2019. Congress still has not passed a defense spending authorization bill that puts cash behind the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2019, he pointed out.
Esper said reverting to BCA-level funding would be a “missed opportunity” now that the Army has gained momentum in reclaiming readiness and embarked on an ambitious modernization plan that includes establishing a four-star-led Futures Command.
It is “critical” that the Army has sustained funding in fiscal years 2020 and beyond because the work of recovering readiness lost through 15 years of war and a decade at least of budgetary uncertainty will take longer than the guaranteed two years.
“If we were unable to sustain funding, we would revert back to where we were a few years ago. We would reverse the gains we are currently making with regard to training readiness, equipment readiness, munitions purchases that are critical for war fights and the personnel gains that are necessary to ensure that we have sufficient end strength to meet the demands of the combatant commanders.
Continuing the current budget ramp through fiscal 2020 may be a bridge too far, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford heard during a hearing on the House side at nearly the same time as Milley and Esper testified before the Senate committee.
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on April 12 told Mattis and Dunford to expect a “lean future” after the current budget agreement expires.
“While 2018 and 2019 are great, I hope you are also planning for a lean future because we are looking at a trillion-dollar deficit this year,” Smith said.
The two-year budget does not guarantee Budget Control Act caps will not return in 2020 or 2021. When Smith asked Mattis if the Pentagon was prepared to adapt to a potential cut of $80 billion, Mattis said it would leave the military unable to fulfill its role in the National Security Strategy.
The Pentagon is not preparing for such a contingency, Mattis said.