If Congress indicated it was willing to spend an additional $115 billion to maintain higher troop levels for the Army and Marine Corps and an 11th aircraft carrier in the Navy, the Defense Department would cut several “minor procurement” items from its budget plan in 2016 to make way for those preferred higher force structure levels, a Defense Department official said.

Last week, the Senate and House armed services committees both struggled to understand how DoD’s fiscal year 2015 budget request could ask for the additional $115 billion from FY ’16-’19 but only support 420,000 soldiers, 175,000 Marines and 10 aircraft carriers, despite promises that the higher spending level was requested to support 450,000 soldiers, 182,000 Marines and 11 aircraft carriers.

Christine Wormuth, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Force Development
Christine Wormuth, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Force Development

The DoD explanation, from Secretary Chuck Hagel and Comptroller Robert Hale, was that drawing down forces and retiring an aircraft carrier take significant time and planning, so they thought it was best that the services begin that planning now even as the Pentagon works with Congress to secure the higher funding levels. Lawmakers, however, seemed uncertain that the higher spending levels could actually translate to the higher troop and ship levels.

Christine Wormuth, deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and force development, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, clarified the issue to say that the spending plan includes some lower-priority spending items in the breakdown of that $115 billion, and if the funding were secured, those items could be cut and funding shifted to personnel and equipment accounts to allow for the troop drawdown to stop early and the aircraft carrier to remain in the fleet.

“If we get a signal from Congress over the next several months that they are going to budget at the higher level than the [Budget Control Act]  cap level, we would go back in in the ‘16 cycle and … we would move some things around, take some money out of some of the modernization accounts–for example, minor procurement–and reorient that funding to enable us to be able to continue to fund the Army at 450 [thousand], for example, or the 11th carrier,” Wormuth said. “And to that effect, the acting deputy secretary has put out a memo to the services directing them to be prepared to do that kind of planning in the next budget cycle, again if we get indications from Congress that they are going to support funding at that higher level.”

If the Pentagon were subjected to sequester-level spending from FY ’16-’19, not only would those troop levels come all the way down and the aircraft carrier be retired, additional ships would be taken out of the Navy fleet, and entire platforms would be removed from the Air Force fleet. Given the lower number of platforms, fewer troops in service and lower readiness levels as a result of decreased training and maintenance, implementing the strategy outlined in the Quadrennial Defense Review would be virtually impossible.

“You can’t live in a mansion if you’re working on a middle-class salary,” Wormuth said. “So at a certain point we are going to have to ask ourselves, what kind of nation do we want to be and what kind of role do we want to play? And being a global leader does not come cheap.”

She added the Pentagon was not willing to abandon its role as a global leader just yet, but without sufficient funding to keep up that role, the department would face some very serious choices regarding what capabilities to keep or to give up on.