Pentagon Budget Plan to Pit Ships Against Nuclear Arms, Aircraft

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The Pentagon’s decision to curtail naval shipbuilding next year is becoming a call to arms for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who will have to find billions of dollars to fund vessels they say are crucial to dominating the seas as China’s and Russia’s influence rises.

The task won’t be easy: National security spending is capped at $741 billion for the next fiscal year and lawmakers are headed into an election in which Democrats will be torn between boosting select national security programs, often beneficial to their districts, and protecting domestic spending that has been reduced under the Trump administration.

“The Democrats are going to be very focused on the whole cuts in the nondefense portions,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The Pentagon further complicated funding decisions when it shifted $3.8 billion from weapons systems to pay for the border wall along the Mexican border. Despite outrage from mostly Democrats, President Donald Trump will be able to get away with the funding shift, Korb said.

“The secretary of defense supports it, he is not throwing any resistance,” Korb said in an interview. In addition, it would be tough for Democrats who already argue that the U.S. spends too much on defense to say that $3.8 billion is going to cause a lot of problems, Korb added.

(Defense Department photos via DVIDS)
Battles will emerge over competing budget priorities, such as the Columbia-class sub, aging missile systems in the nation’s nuclear triad, and Trump’s border wall.

Pricey ships and submarines will have to compete with restoring funding for aircraft that the Pentagon wants to retire, such as the Global Hawk and aerial refueling tankers as well as with the Trump administration’s priority to boost the nuclear weapon arsenal—a plan that has backing from Republicans in Congress.

Here are the battles likely to unfold as the congressional defense panels start writing the authorization and spending bill for fiscal 2021:

Navy Vessels vs. Nuclear Arsenal

The Navy’s budget plan included $19.9 billion request for eight ships, out of which only six can be used in combat, according to Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces panel. “This is a significant deviation both to the fiscal year 2020 budget request, which planned 10 ships in 2021, and the final agreement on the 2020 authorization and spending measures that approved 12 ships,” Courtney said in a statement. “The stated requirement for the Navy is a fleet of 355 ships, which has been reaffirmed repeatedly in testimony by senior defense leaders and statements of policy from President Trump’s administration, and approved in law by Congress. One Virginia-class submarine, championed by Courtney, was cut in the official budget proposal only to be listed at the Navy’s top unfunded priority for next year. Complicating the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is the new nuclear Columbia-class submarine. The $4.4 billion for the sub, made by General Dynamics Corp.’s Electric Boat, is eating into funds for other shipbuilding, said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the Armed Services panel’s ranking member. Thornberry, Courtney, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have advocated a National Seabased Deterrence fund that would cull money from various Pentagon accounts so that the expensive submarine doesn’t become just the Navy’s responsibility. That concept has yet to receive backing from the Pentagon and defense spending panels.

Meanwhile, shipbuilding also ended up losing about $2 billion that will be used to boost funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), according to Courtney’s statement. That increase has the backing of Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Border Wall Funding

The Pentagon’s shift of $3.8 billion from high-profile weapons systems and hardware funded this year to an account used to build the southwestern border wall has rankled Democratic lawmakers and is likely to influence debate over the fiscal year 2021 defense authorization and appropriations bills. Thornberry, the retiring House Armed Services Committee ranking member, was the lone Republican voice calling for action in Congress. As they write the defense bills this year, lawmakers could once again take a stab at changing the Pentagon’s reprogramming authorities.

Congress and the administration “can no longer say that they are spending $738 billion on defense after taking about $4 billion in reprogramming for the wall,” said Michael Herson, the president of American Defense International, a lobbying firm specializing in defense. “The real number for fiscal year 2020 is now $734 billion which is just $1 billion more than the Democrats offered at the beginning of last year,” and before Congress and White House struck the latest budget deal of $738 billion in 2020 and $741 billion in 2021.

Aircraft Retirements

Plans to retire aircraft rarely go well on Capitol Hill. Those aircraft provide jobs for service members and their families stationed in congressional districts scattered across the country who work for the companies maintaining and building the planes. The Air Force has proposed retiring 44 A-10 close air support aircraft, 24 Global Hawk surveillance drones made by Northrop Grumman Corp., as well as the KC-135 and KC-10 refueling tanker aircraft both made by Boeing Co. The tanker decision is complicating matters for the U.S. Transportation Command, which told Congress as part of its unfunded priorities wish list that it would need those aircraft restored. The retirements, which have been decided before Boeing’s new KC-46A would be available, would affect wartime and daily missions and would pose mobilization problems in the event of a crisis, Gen. Stephen Lyons, the head of Transportation Command, told congressional defense committee leaders in a letter obtained by Bloomberg Government. “USTRANSCOM seeks to reverse this outcome for fiscal year 2021,” he said and “buy back” the 10 KC-10s and 13 KC-135 aircraft that the Air Force is seeking to retire.

The Air Force’s decision to stop buying the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, an armed drone, is going to pose issues on Capitol Hill especially after Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of Central Command with responsibility over the Middle East and Afghanistan, asked Congress for more Reapers in fiscal 2021 as part of his command’s wish list, which is outside the regular annual budget submission.

Space Domain

The coming year will be pivotal for the expanding Space Force and the Pentagon’s space operations. Congress, which has been concerned about creating unneeded bureaucracy, will have to decide whether it’s comfortable with a fiscal 2021 request that expands the nascent service’s budget to $15.4 billion from $40 million and from one chief of space operations now to 9,979 personnel.

(Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett)
Questions remain over the size and scope of the newly established Space Force.

“It’s not a massive part of the budget but it’s a massive part of what our budget is focused on enabling,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said during an appearance Feb. 21 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

The planned growth has triggered a debate over the place of state-operated National Guard units in the new military order. Guard adjutants general from California, Colorado, Florida, and Hawaii are pressing the Pentagon to move their space operations into a new National Space Guard. A total of about 1,500 Air and Army National Guard members support military space missions in eight states and the territory of Guam.

Defense planners are considering a totally federalized Space Force as one option as it hashes out the structure of the Space Force.

The state National Guard leaders fear they could lose personnel and facilities to the new military service branch and plan to seek support from lawmakers as Space Force plans evolve this year. The Pentagon had indicated it will not propose any changes to Army and Air National Guard forces until the 2022 legislative cycle, despite the urging.

Space Command

The Pentagon’s upcoming decision on where to base the new U.S. Space Command is also of keen interest to lawmakers and states, which hope to win jobs, federal funding, and prestige. The command was created in August to handle combat operations in space, while Space Force will train and equip space troops. The Air Force announced in May it is considering locations in Colorado, Alabama, and California for the command, but has remained mum as it conducts site surveys and analysis. Trump indicated during a campaign rally in Colorado Springs Feb. 20 that the area is “being very strongly considered” and a basing decision could come toward the end of this year. Trump said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) had personally lobbied him on Space Command at the event, and he mentioned Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s interest. But other states want a chance too, and lawmakers in California and Alabama have lobbied the Air Force. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has urged the president to put his state on the list of considered locations.

Health Care Overhaul

Congress must also decide if it supports the Pentagon’s plans to overhaul its sprawling health care system as it gets a clearer picture of changes that could cause some disruptions for beneficiaries and cuts to military personnel. About 200,000 military family members and retirees will be pushed out of military treatment facilities in dozens of states and instead be required to find care from civilian providers, Tom McCaffery, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said Feb. 19.

“We recognize the shift” to civilian care “may involve new out-of-pocket costs for some retirees,” McCaffery said.

A total of 37 hospitals and clinics across the country will now serve only active-duty troops as part of an effort to streamline the military health care system spurred by the fiscal 2017 defense authorization (Public Law 114-328).

Plans also call for culling 17,000 uniform medical positions at military facilities. Lawmakers will get a detailed look at those cuts in June when the Pentagon is expected to submit a reportC

To contact the reporters on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at; Travis J. Tritten at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Jodie Morris at

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