The Defense Department’s fiscal year 2017 budget request will call for a topline of $582.7 billion, hewing closely to the levels set in the Bipartisan Budget Agreement made last year.

That amount includes both base budget expenditures and wartime spending, also known as Overseas Contingency Operations funds (OCO), said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during a Tuesday speech previewing the budget to the Economic Club of Washington. The Pentagon plans to roll out the budget on Feb. 9.

Congress repeatedly has agreed to stop the Air Force from retiring its A-10 fleet as a cost-saving measure. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.
Congress repeatedly has agreed to stop the Air Force from retiring its A-10 fleet as a cost-saving measure. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

But hawkish lawmakers on Capitol Hill are already grumbling that the funding levels are too low to support the heightened pace of operations necessary to counter the Islamic State terror group and escalating Russian aggression. The congressional armed services committees will likely seek to raise OCO to pay for those increased expenses without busting the spending limits set in the budget deal, committee staff members said.

Weapons Programs

The acquisition of naval technologies will undergo a strategic shift as the Navy rebalances to prioritize the offensive power of its surface ships—rather than the number of vessels acquired—and invests more heavily in undersea warfare, Carter said.

The budget will call for more than $8.1 billion for undersea and anti-submarine technologies, with more than $40 billion included in the future years defense plan, which projects defense spending for the next five years, he said. That amount includes funding for “more advanced payloads and munitions, like better torpedoes and unmanned undersea vehicles” as well as maritime patrol aircraft, which could entail an uptick in the program of record for the P-8A Poseidon made by Boeing [BA]. It also includes nine Virginia-class submarines, more of which will be equipped with the Virginia Payload Module that more than triples the amount of Tomahawk missiles that can be carried on each sub, he said.

“To put more money in submarines, Navy fighter jets, and a lot of other important areas, one trade-off we made was to buy only as many Littoral Combat Ships as we really need,” he said, referencing a leaked memo to Navy leadership where he directed the service to cut its planned LCS buy from 52 to 40 ships and to downselect to a single shipbuilder by fiscal 2019 (Defense Daily, Dec. 17). Carter said he would further detail the LCS plan during a speech tomorrow to surface fleet sailors in San Diego.

In the realm of air power, Carter announced that the Pentagon will push back the retirement of the A-10 Warthog until 2022 to bridge the gap until its replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter manufactured by Lockheed Martin [LMT], can take its place. That move that effectively kicks the politically unpopular decision to retire the Warthog down the road to the next administration.

Cyber and space programs will also see a boost in the president’s budget request. The Pentagon wants about $7 billion in 2017 and nearly $35 billion over the FYDP to build up the department’s cyber capabilities, including improving the hardiness of military networks, training cyber personnel and developing offensive cyber weapons, he said.

Carter alluded to a bump in space spending but did not disclose an exact figure.

“We must be prepared for the possibility of a conflict that extends into space,” he said. “Last year we added over $5 billion dollars in new investments to make us better postured for that, and in 2017 we’re doing even more, enhancing our ability to identify, attribute, and negate all threatening actions in space.”

The department wants to buy additional munitions, particularly GPS-guided smart bombs and laser-guided rockets that the military has relied upon in its fight against the Islamic State, Carter said.  The requested investment of $1.8 billion dollars would allow the Pentagon to buy more than 45,000 of such weapons.  

Research and development dollars will increase to $71.4 billion dollars, he added.

During the next fiscal year, the Pentagon will also continue to push forward various reform measures meant to cut down bureaucracy, Carter said. The department plans to cut $8 billion in overhead over the next five years, and recommendations from an internal Goldwater-Nichols organizational review will be forthcoming in the next few weeks. It is also “starting to see results” from the Better Buying Power initiative.

Strategic Transition to High-End Threats

Carter, who called fiscal 2017 an “inflection point,” said the budget was driven by a shift in the strategic environment caused by the increasing dominance of Russia and China, the United States’ nearest competitors in terms of military might.

“The U.S. military will fight very differently than we have in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in the rest of the world’s recent memory,” he said. “We will be prepared for a high-end enemy–that’s what we call full-spectrum.  In our budget, our plans, our capabilities and our actions, we must demonstrate to potential foes that if they start a war, we have the capability to win.”

Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State also provide challenges to the military, with the latter providing a near term threat that must be destroyed, Carter said. The department plans to ramp up its fight against ISIL in the next year. The budget request will include $7.5 billion, increasing funding for the campaign by about 50 percent.

It is also requesting a huge boost to U.S. forces in Europe—a total of $3.4 billion, more than quadruple last year’s $789 million request. That money will fund more rotational troops in the region, training and exercises with ally and partner nations, additional prepositioned warfighting equipment and infrastructure needed to counter Russian aggression.

All of this together by the end of 2017 will let us rapidly form a highly-capable combined-arms ground force that can respond theater-wide if necessary,” he said.

Congress Weighs In

The president’s budget request could tee up another fight in Congress over the OCO portion of the budget. Republican lawmakers, including the two chairmen of the armed services committees, have said that the wartime spending account would likely need to be increased over the Bipartisan Budget Act amount because of current operations in the Middle East and Europe.

House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said the budget limits previewed today ignore the spirit of the original deal.

“The [budget] agreement provided a minimum investment in national security—the ‘lower ragged edge’ of what it takes to defend the country, plus an agreement that the rest of the OCO funding would reflect current operations and the current security environment,” he said in a statement. 

Although the increased funds for operations in the Middle East and Europe are welcome, there is no equivalent increase to OCO, meaning that other parts of the base budget will likely be cut, he said.  

“The president’s response to a security environment that is quickly degrading is to further cannibalize our military capability,” he said. “The president had the authority and responsibility to request all funding necessary to address emerging threats. Once again, the responsibility to provide the appropriate level of funding to address these threats will fall to Congress.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Defense Daily that while he had not been briefed on the budget numbers, he heard they were low. If that’s true, “The president is oblivious to what is happening” operationally, and it will likely ignite another battle over the defense budget this year, he said.

The armed service committees can recommend an increase to the Pentagon’s budget in the National Defense Authorization Act, but members won’t know exactly how much to increase it until the budget comes out next week, an armed service committee staff member said.

“We need to see the actual budget submission and see which base requirements are being cut to accommodate the new emergency spending,” he said. Either way, that increase will have to also be adopted in the appropriations bill and signed into law by the president in order to be put into effect.

Last fall, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said the budget agreement numbers leave the department with a $15 billion shortfall compared with its original projection of what it would need in 2017.

That could be a jumping off point as debates start over how much to increase OCO, the staff member said. “That’s probably as good a number of any that’s out there right now.”