Those who thought 2019’s two-year bipartisan budget agreement would take much of the drama out of this year’s defense deliberations on Capitol Hill will likely be disappointed.
The pact between Congress and President Trump set $740.5 billion as the topline for overall defense spending in fiscal 2021, or just a little more than the $738 billion for fiscal 2020. The total includes funds for the Defense Department and national security programs performed by the Department of Energy’s nuclear laboratories and other agencies.
There’s actually a little less for DoD ($705.4 billion) in the president’s budget than in fiscal 2020 appropriations ($712.2 billion). The administration wants to put more defense dollars into modernizing the nation’s aging nuclear weapons. Some of it would go to DoE, which means Pentagon programs get a slightly smaller share of the total funds available.
DoD’s share works out to $636.4 billion in the requested base budget and $53 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations, or warfighting, account. The figures are slightly more in the base budget ($633.3 billion) and a good bit less in OCO ($66.4 billion) than fiscal 2020.
Pentagon officials are also back to more straight-forward OCO accounting. They put $98 billion in base operations and maintenance (O&M) requirements there in the fiscal 2020 request to skirt the Budget Control Act of 2011, which exempted OCO from spending limits. Last year’s budget agreement ended the BCA, which is better known as sequestration.
Most of the topline numbers won’t generate much debate on Capitol Hill. An exception will be nuclear modernization programs, especially those related to warheads, which have put Republicans and Democrats at loggerheads in the past.
“This will be, I predict, the probably most contentious issue in this year’s defense authorization bill about modernizing the stockpile,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Service Committee, during remarks at the Brookings Institution in March. “There is a temptation to say, ‘Oh, it’s worked pretty well so far. Why do we need to mess with it and spend all this money?’”
Thornberry said the nuclear arsenal needs to be modernized. His Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the HASC chairman, doesn’t share the same urgency on the matter.
Other matters in the request will likely also be contentious. One is the Air Force plan to cut 44 A-10 Thunderbolt II fighters, 39 of which are in the Air National Guard.
Congress has rebuffed previous Air Force efforts to retire the iconic Warthog, but this attempt is a little different. The plan is to retire 63 A-10s that have yet to be re-winged over two years. The remaining 218 would be further modernized to fly in seven squadrons through 2040: three active component, three Guard and one Air Force Reserve.
Guard fighter wings in Idaho, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan currently operate wings with one A-10 squadron.
But while the A-10 would remain in the inventory, it would have a more limited role. The Air Force doesn’t think the slow-moving, airborne star of recent conflicts can survive the contested skies the Russians or Chinese would present. Instead, the A-10 will be used solely against bandits and insurgents in lightly defended airspace.
The Air Force would also retire many more legacy aircraft as part of the budget request, including 29 aerial refueling tankers, 24 C-130H Hercules cargo aircraft, 24 Global Hawk drones and 17 B-1B Lancer bombers. It’s all part of the service’s move toward the high-end capabilities required in great-power competition.
As always, however, Congress has the final say.
While the prosposed MILCON increase is good news for the Army Guard, it is far less than the need.
THE ARMY GUARD would see a slight increase in pay and allowances and a small dip in O&M.
The P&A request would cover a 3% pay raise and an increase in authorized personnel end-strength to 336,500 soldiers, but no hike in full-time support. It leaves the Army Guard’s major force structure intact: 27 brigade combat teams, 10 combat aviation brigades/theater aviation brigades, four attack reconnaissance battalions, two Special Forces groups, one security force assistance brigade and one cyber brigade.
Better news is in the budget request for military construction and equipment. Army Guard MILCON funding would grow from $211 million in fiscal 2020 to $321 million in fiscal 2021. The fund would cover major projects in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, the U.S. Virgin Is-lands and Wisconsin.
While the proposed MILCON increase is good news for the Army Guard, it is far less than the need. Guard leaders who assessed Army Guard facilities nationwide in recent years and crunched the numbers believe the force requires more than $1 billion annually for 15 years to raise the collective condition index to “fair.”
Current funding levels have things deteriorating further, the same leaders say.
Army Guard equipment in the request includes 24 rebuilt AH-64E Apache Block IIIA attack helicopters, 24 new UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters and rebuilt V-model Black Hawks. This follows the fiscal 2020 appropriation of funds for 64 M-model Black Hawks.
As always...Congress has the final say.
THE AIR GUARD would see slightly larger boosts in P&A and O&M than the Army Guard.
Air Guard P&A increases nearly $500 million. It covers the 3% pay raise, 400 more airmen for a total of 108,100 and the conversion of another 2,519 military technicians to the Active Guard and Reserve program. The Air Guard began the conversion program in fiscal 2019. More than 5,500 technicians were converted in the first two years of the effort.
The spending plan is less rosy for the Air Guard in MILCON and its aircraft inventory. It would have Air Guard MILCON shrink from $164 million in fiscal 2020 to just $64 million. Only projects in Alabama, Guam, Maryland and Texas would receive construction funds.
In addition to losing 39 A-10s in the proposal, the Air Guard would shed 24 C-130H cargo planes in fiscal 2021.
According to commanders in the Guard C-130 community, 19 would be replaced by J-model C-130s in fiscal 2021 as part of the conversion of three airlift wings to the new aircraft. The three wings have not yet been determined and the conversion would extend into fiscal 2022.
The other five H-models would come one each from five Guard C-130H units. This would take the selected wings from eight to seven aircraft. It’s the start of a multiyear plan to cut the Air Force’s C-130 fleet from 300 to 255 aircraft.
Four Guard C-130 airlift wings would lose their aircraft as part of the plan. Those that remain would get the least old of the H-models in the fleet. Units in Montana and Connecticut currently operate C-130s built in 1974.
Lawmakers from C-130 states will almost certainly be watching the proceedings very closely.
Budget documents also show “zero” RC-26B Condors in the Guard inventory for fiscal 2021. Operated only by the Guard, the RC-26B is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform used in counterdrug operations, including missions over the southwest border. The Air Guard has 13 scattered across 11 states.
The Air Force says it no longer has a federal mission and tried to retire the aircraft in the fiscal 2020 budget, but Congress pushed back, asking for a report on the missions the RC-26B does perform and how the Air Force and the Guard would pick up slack.
AND THEN THERE’S THE ANNUAL MYSTERY equipment fund: NGREA, the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account.
Each year the Defense Department leaves that budget line blank and Congress adds money for it. The money is used to buy required equipment not included in the budget requests. Items range from aircraft upgrades and vehicles to radios and training simulators. For fiscal 2020, lawmakers awarded each Guard component $395 million, but the Pentagon reprogrammed it.
The question now is, what will lawmakers do with NGREA in fiscal 2021 appropriations? How about other congressional add-ons the Guard depends on, such as funds to modernize Humvees and recapitalize its C-130 fleet. Appropriations for both were also reprogrammed in February.
Also unknown is the impact of COVID-19 on this year’s appropriations. All parties have agreed to the budget toplines, but the outbreak could impact their distribution as lawmakers assess the way forward.
While Congress has yet to make a decision on fiscal 2021 appropriations this session, it has already added nearly $3 trillion to the fiscal 2020 budget to help the suddenly unemployed and stimulate the shutdown economy. The Congressional Budget Office now projects the fiscal 2020 budget deficit to reach $3.7 trillion.
This may make the fiscal 2021’s defense topline of $741.5 billion the most funding the U.S. military may see for a while.
JOHN GOHEEN is the NGAUS director of communications. He can be contacted at [email protected].
Fiscal 2021 Defense Budget Request
●While overall defense spending increases slightly, the budget for the Defense Department is actually down about $7 billion from fiscal 2020
●The decrease comes from the lowest request for the Overseas Contingency Operations account in several years
●Includes a 3% military pay raise
ARMY NATIONAL GUARD
●Increases overall personnel and O&M funding from $16.4 billion to $16.5 billion
●Funds personnel end-strength of 336,500 troops, which is 500 more than fiscal 2020, but full-time support remains the same
●Includes 24 rebuilt AH-64E Apache Block IIIA attack helicopters and 24 new UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters
●Funds major construction projects in 14 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
AIR NATIONAL GUARD
●Increases overall personnel and O&M funding from $10.9 billion to $11.5 billion
●Funds end-strength of 108,100 airmen, 400 more than fiscal 2020, and converts 2,519 dual-status military technicians to the Active Guard and Reserve program
●Eliminates 24 C-130H cargo planes and 39 A-10 Thunderbolt II fighters
●Funds major construction projects in three states and Guam