Hurry Up & Wait

April 2017

By William Matthews
(read online digital version)

Finally, there's a president who wants an “historic increase” in defense spending—a 10 percent boost, by his calculation—that will pay for more troops, buy more ships and planes, upgrade other equipment and restore readiness. Pair that with a Congress that’s controlled by the president’s party, and what could possibly go wrong-

Plenty, it is quickly apparent.

President Donald Trump has asked Congress to add $30 billion to the 2017 defense budget, which would push 2017 spending up to $613.7 billion. Trump also has proposed a $639 billion total defense budget for 2018.

But the two requests face opposition on many fronts. Defense hawks say the 2018 budget proposal is too small. Deficit hawks worry that both proposals fail to curb government spending. The 2017 supplemental and the 2018 budget both exceed the spending caps now in place because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, more commonly known as “sequestration.”

And lawmakers from both parties decry Trump’s plan to boost defense spending by stripping money from other agencies, particularly the State Department, the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, vows not to let Trump’s defense increases zero out funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which benefits his home state. And Rep. Harold Rogers, a fellow Kentuckian and a former House Appropriations Committee chairman, pronounced many of Trump’s proposed cuts “draconian, careless and counterproductive.”

Other lawmakers have simply declared Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request “dead on arrival.”

The 2018 request includes $574 billion for the “base” defense budget, plus $65 billion for an Overseas Contingency Operations account that pays for ongoing wars and other emergency operations. In addition, Trump wants $29 billion for defense-related expenses paid by other non-defense agencies, such as the Energy Department, which spends about $20.5 billion a year on nuclear weapons. That brings the president’s planned defense-spending total to $668 billion for 2018.

The $30 billion add-on for 2017 would place an additional $25 billion in the Defense Department’s “base budget,” pushing it $25 billion above the 2017 budget cap. Exceeding the cap would trigger sequestration, which means automatic cuts to all budget items. The Budget Control Act was intended to curb federal spending by putting limits on both defense and domestic budgets.

To exceed the 2017 spending cap, Congress would have to amend the Budget Control Act, which it did in 2015. Budget experts say that’s unlikely. In order to lift the 2017 spending caps for defense, lawmakers would have to also lift the caps on domestic programs, a budget-busting move that’s politically untenable even for defense champions.

Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, puts it this way: “We need a more lethal fighting force,” but raising the spending limits on defense “must be done in concert with eliminating the caps on non-defense spending as well.”

But that’s not what the budget supplemental proposes to do. It calls for $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs to bolster defense. That’s clearly unacceptable to a lot of lawmakers, Republicans as well as Democrats.

Another hurdle: The supplemental also includes at least $1.5 billion to begin building Trump’s signature wall on the Southwest border, which members of Congress from both parties oppose.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., whose district touches the Mexican border for nearly 200 miles west of El Paso, Texas, says that a wall won’t work. “You can come over it, under it, around it, through it,” Pearce said.

The wall aside, the bulk of the $30 billion supplemental aims at three objectives: accelerate defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaida; increase war-fighting readiness; and fund “must-pay bills”—including military pay raises—the Defense Department said in its March 16 request for more money.

It includes half a dozen items aimed specifically at the National Guard, and a dozen or so other items that could mean money that trickles down to the Guard for personnel and to make equipment upgrades.

Items in the supplemental aimed specifically at the Guard include:

  • $47.5 million to improve the Air National Guard communication systems, including a mass-notification warning system and base-level unified communication;

  • $8.5 million for Air Guard civilian personnel;

  • $131 million to pay for Guard and Reserve mobilization man-days for overseas operations;

  • $114 million to pay for costs associated with increased reserve mobilizations “due to increased mission requirements above budgeted levels”;

  • An unspecified amount for pay and allowance costs that result from unexpected increases in Air Force reserve-component mobilizations;

  • $2 billion to accelerate the defeat of ISIS, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, including an unspecified amount to support mobilized Guard personnel.

Other supplemental items that could trickle money down to the Guard, include:

  • $1.3 billion for “enhanced and more realistic training” at the Army’s National Training Center, including more training on the ground and more flying hours for active, Guard and Reserve troops;

  • $2.87 billion to improve Army equipment in aviation, armor formations, unmanned aerial systems, and air and missile defense systems;

  • $1.2 billion for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for multiple operations to counter ISIS, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations;

  • $1.1 billion to boost equipment, ISR and force-protection needs for operations in Afghanistan;

  • $2 billion for operations in Iraq and Syria;

  • $467 million to upgrade aircraft including F-16s, F-15s, C-130s, MC-130Js, HC-130Js, HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, A-10s, E-3 and E-8C surveillanwce planes; and

  • $227 million to boost cyber capabilities.

The supplemental also calls for spending an extra $102.5 million on Army Guard personnel, increasing the 2017 total to $8 billion. The Air Guard would get an extra $22.6 million, pushing its 2017 personnel total to $3.3 billion.

The Army Guard would also get an extra $204 million for operations and maintenance, increasing the 2017 total to almost $7.2 billion. The Air Guard would get an extra $115 million, increasing its 2017 O&M total to $6.8 billion.

Even without the $30 billion supplemental, the 2017 budget as passed by the House provides some plus-ups for the Guard, including more money for UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Humvee modernization and C-130J Hercules cargo planes.

There is also $9.9 million to create Army Guard Cyber Protection Teams and $247.5 million each for the Army Guard and Air Guard in the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account (NGREA).

More Immediate Concern

Sequestration is only one impediment that stands in the way of those budget increases.

To begin with, the budget process is in disarray. Congress has yet to pass the 2017 budget, which was due Oct. 1, 2016. The military is operating on a continuing resolution, an extension of the 2016 budget, which is substantially smaller than the proposed 2017 budget plus its amendment.

The House finally passed its version of the 2017 budget March 8, but the Senate did not act last month. Some senators oppose passing the defense budget until the budgets for 10 other government agencies are also ready to be passed.

In mid-March, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., urged lawmakers to finish the defense bill and the other 2017 spending bills by April 28. His concern is well founded: If Congress doesn’t finalize the budget before the current continuing resolution expires, the federal government faces a possible shutdown.

And lawmakers will have to wisely manage the remaining days before that deadline. They leave for their annual Easter recess April 10 and don’t return until the week of April 24. Congress could buy more time with another CR, an action that would keep the government running, but not very efficiently.

Service secretaries and chiefs have pleaded with lawmakers for months to resolve their differences and complete work on the budget. Not only does a CR force leaders to fund this year’s programs and operations at last year’s budget rates, it prohibits spending on new programs. They said they can manage a short-term CR, but the longer it goes the more it scuttles plans and curtails readiness. And the government has already been operating under the stop-gap measure for six months.

A yearlong CR is not beyond the realm of possibility. The impact on the planned Guard training and modernization would be significant. National Guard Bureau officials say it would provide no funds for modernizing C-130H avionics, reduce training overall and potentially curtail Army Guard commitments to combatant commands in Europe, the Pacific and South Korea.

It would also keep the Army Guard from money Congress added to support the Computer Protection Teams and Humvee modernization and all funds lawmakers directed for NGREA.

Looking Now at Next Year

The lack of a final 2017 budget hasn’t prevented debate on the 2018 budget proposal. What’s known about Trump’s first full spending request is contained in a “skinny” blueprint the White House unveiled March 16. Compared to regular defense budgets that typically are hundreds of pages long, the blueprint offers only two pages on defense spending.

Like the budget amendment, the 2018 budget aims to speed the defeat of the Islamic State, address current readiness needs, and build “a larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force.”

The blueprint promises to reverse Army personnel end-strength reductions and bulk up the Air Force’s tactical air fleet. The Trump administration touts the 2018 budget as a 10 percent spending increase. But details are scant. A complete budget is expected in May.

Like the 2017 amendment, the 2018 budget would violate the spending caps. The blueprint says Trump’s 2018 defense spending plan “fully repeals” the spending caps, but the president doesn’t have authority to do that. Only Congress can. In the past, lawmakers have devised ways to get around the caps, but they have never repealed them.

The 2018 budget was controversial as soon as the top lines were unveiled. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, zeroed in on the base budget, which he calculated to be $603 billion after adding nuclear weapons and other nonmilitary defense expenses, and declared it inadequate.

McCain (Conversation, page 28) also pointed out that the increase to $603 billion is far less than 10 percent when compared to the current 2016 defense budget of $572.7 billion, or the $584.5 billion budget that the Obama administration was working on for 2018. The increase, McCain said, is actually about 3 percent.

That “will not be sufficient to rebuild the military,” McCain said. For that and other reasons, “it is clear that this budget … cannot pass the Senate,” he said. Instead, lawmakers must “work together to reach a bipartisan agreement that provides sufficient funds to rebuild the military.” In January, McCain suggested a $640 billion base budget for the military in 2018.

He is backed by Rep. Mack Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. In addition to wanting $640 billion for defense, Thornberry says he opposes Trump’s plan to cut the State Department’s $50 billion budget by 37 percent and trim $1.3 billion from the Coast Guard’s $9 billion annual budget.

Those cuts are part of Trump’s plan to cut $54 billion worth of nonmilitary spending to make up for the $54 billion increase he proposes for defense. Many lawmakers worry that the deep cuts proposed for the State Department would reduce U.S. influence around the world. They say cutting the Coast Guard would cripple an already under-funded agency that’s important to homeland security. And plans to slash funding from dozens of programs that range from support for medical research to Amtrak train service is generating widespread opposition.

Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, described the 2018 spending plan last month: “Make no mistake about it, this is a hard-power budget, not a soft-power budget. That was done intentionally. The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong power administration, so you have seen money move from soft-power programs, such as foreign aid, into more hard power programs.”

That won’t be an easy sell at home, however. As word of Trump’s proposed domestic cuts came out, more than 120 retired general officers wrote to Congress urging lawmakers not to cut the State Department budget. Even some long-time defense hawks joined in opposition. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the State Department cuts are “not going to happen. It would be a disaster.”

Reaction from Democrats was swift and mostly negative. Even some Republicans are wary. “The administration’s budget isn’t going to be the budget,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “We do the budget here. The administration makes recommendations, but Congress does budgets.”

Aside from the politically sensitive matter of deep cuts to domestic programs, some lawmakers question how it would be possible to increase military spending and also pursue other Trump priorities— building the border wall, pouring $1 trillion into infrastructure improvements and cutting taxes—without dramatically increasing the nation’s $500 billion annual deficit and $20 trillion in accumulated debt.

“It’s a concern that I haven’t heard a plan yet from the administration to deal with our overall spending and debt problem,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a leading “deficit hawk” in the House.

He and others, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House speaker, have argued for years that the nation must reduce deficit spending and move toward a balanced budget. The only way to do that without raising taxes, they say, is to reform two massive spending programs—Social Security and Medicare.

Social Security costs more than the military, topping out at about $900 billion a year. Medicare costs about $550 billion. But Congress has kicked that can for years.

Meanwhile, work is already underway on the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, a normally voluminous document that includes hundreds of changes to the defense policy.

NGAUS is working with supporters in the House and Senate leaders on a series of initiatives (Priorities, page 24). They include full benefits for Guardsmen mobilized under 12304b, money for UH-60 Black Hawk modernization and more robust mental health/suicide prevention programs.

WILLIAM MATTHEWS is a Springfield, Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in military matters. He can be contacted at


Legislative Priorities for the Fiscal 2018 Defense Bills


Congress created this mobilization authority in 2012 to provide the services with easier access to the National Guard and Reserves for planned overseas missions. However, it does not convey the same benefits as other mobilization authorities, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill, TRICARE medical coverage before and after a mobilization, and credit for early retirement. Bills in both the House (H.R. 1384) and Senate (S. 473) would help correct that.

UH-60 Modernization

The Army National Guard operates nearly 900 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, but approximately 250 are original A-models that are on average 34 years old. Plans call for the UH-60A to be in the Guard fleet until 2025. That timeline, however, is contingent on the continued funding of three separate programs: the procurement of new UH-60Ms, the UH-60V upgrade program and the UH-60A-L conversion program.

Army Aviation Restructure Initiative

The Army’s controversial plan to cut aviation costs is no longer proceeding as conceived. The National Commission on the Future of the Army recommended and Army officials have agreed to keep some AH-64 Apache helicopter battalions in the Army National Guard, but the number and locations have not been determined. The Guard began last year with eight Apache battalions. Today, there are six. Given increased threats and the promise of more dollars for defense, NGAUS believes all six should be retained.

Full-time Support

Full-time support is the backbone of National Guard readiness. Active Guard and Reserve personnel and military technicians provide the administrative and logistical support required to get the rest of the force out of the door quickly. Unfortunately, the Army National Guard assigned FTS is only about 70 percent of its Army-validated requirement. The force has been able to augment the figure in units preparing to mobilize by putting soldiers on temporary duty, but that measure won’t work for short-notice mobilizations. Increasing FTS is the only permanent solution.

C-130H Modernization

The vast majority of C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft in the Air National Guard are older H-models in need of significant modernization, including new on-board air-traffic-management equipment to meet new international airspace regulations that take effect in 2020. They also need their analog systems converted to digital, new engines and new propellers. Plans are in place to make all the upgrades, but they all aren’t fully funded.

Mental Health/ Suicide Prevention

The suicide rate in the National Guard remains unacceptably high. Remedies are difficult due to the continuing stigma of seeking help coupled with so many Guardsmen having poor access to mental-health care. The situation requires more resources to make more face-to-face help available. A start is fully funding the National Guard community and embedded mental-health program. It provides onsite access to mental-health professionals during drill weekends.

Military Construction

Both the Army and Air National Guard are saddled with aging infrastructure. It’s a readiness issue. The Army Guard needs nearly $21 billion to bring facilities nationwide up to “fair” on the condition index, according to the 2014 Army National Guard Readiness Center Transformation Master Plan. This would be about $1.3 billion a year for 15 years. The Air Guard needs $300 million annually to reach the same level. For fiscal 2017, the Army Guard will receive $234 million; the Air Guard, $114 million.

NGAUS staff report