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National Guard Magazine |
April 2023

New Challenges

The 2022 election altered the power structure on Capitol Hill. The Republicans have taken charge of the House of Representatives.

Their margin may be narrow, but it’s enough to control the committees and the agenda.

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That means the nation’s political divide is firmly in place in Congress — while the GOP runs the House, the Democrats still control the Senate.

Since legislation has to pass both chambers before it can be enacted, the situation figures to make it more difficult for lawmakers to get things done, most importantly a budget. It could also force greater bipartisanship.

Thus far, House Republicans have been clear about their agenda: Get the nation’s finances in better order. And they’re leveraging the need for Congress to increase the debt limit to try and force cuts to federal spending.

The national debt has hit the $31.4 trillion limit mandated by Congress. Lawmakers has to something or risk the nation defaulting on its loans, perhaps as early as June 1. The House has passed a bill on a party-line vote that ties raising the borrowing limit contingent on cutting nondefense spending. The legislation spares Social Security and Medicare, which means the reductions come from a small portion of the federal budget, at least for now.

Some House Republicans did suggest earlier this year the possibility of cutting defense spending. This prompted cautionary warnings from Pentagon leaders and military associations, including NGAUS. Related or not, talk of cutting defense has subsided.

The House’s debt-limit legislation has almost no chance in the Senate. The GOP knew that would be the case. The real aim here was to pressure the White House to negotiate. Initially, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats refused, demanding a “clean” debt-limit increase without conditions, something lawmakers have provided many times in recent years. But with time running thin, the White House has agreed to talks.

This is the tricky environment in which deliberations have begun on the nation’s largest, nominal-dollar peacetime budget in history. The fiscal 2024 defense spending plan includes $842 billion for the Defense Department. The topline jumps to $886 billion with the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons work and other federal projects.

Pentagon leaders say the record amount is a product of growing concern over China. They told Congress after the March 9 budget reveal that U.S. forces must prepare for possible hostilities with Beijing.

“The People’s Republic of China remains our No. 1 long-term geostrategic security challenge,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House panel. “China’s actions are moving it down the path toward confrontation and potential conflict with its neighbors — and possibly with the United States. But again, I say, war with China is neither inevitable nor imminent.”

But despite the record topline, the defense request is only 3% more than the fiscal 2023 total. With current inflation running higher, the proposal actually provides less purchasing power. It’s a point lawmakers, especially Republicans, have been quick to mention.

“Our nation faces unprecedented threats from China and Russia and it’s unconscionable that President Biden has chosen to once again shortchange our warfighters,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Fox News. “By failing to account for inflation, President Biden’s budget request would leave America weakened and vulnerable.”

“Luckily,” Rogers added, “Congress calls the shots when it comes to funding our military.”

In the upper chamber, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was concerned that the fiscal 2024 budget request of $185.5 billion for the Army is actually less than what was enacted for fiscal 2023. Add a 5.2% pay raise and service officials are suddenly hard-pressed to fund modernization.

“Understandably, the department is focused on the pacing threat in the Indo-Pacific, where the nature of competition relies heavily on our nation’s sea and air strength,” Reed said at a recent hearing. “However, I am concerned that inadequate investment in the United States’ primary land component may create vulnerabilities.”

The ranking Republican on the committee agreed. “I am confident my colleagues on a bipartisan basis, again, will join me to correct this inadequate budget and make sure the Army has the right resources to confront the nation’s current and future challenges,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Congress added $45 billion to the president’s budget request last year for DoD. Most observers believe lawmakers will be far less generous this year in an environment with so much discussion about cutting federal spending.

Luckily, Congress calls the shots when it comes to funding our military.

—Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee

WITH BUDGET REQUESTS that historically underfund its needs, the National Guard relies on congressional generosity. Last year, lawmakers added more than $4 billion to fiscal 2023 defense appropriations for Guard equipment, much of it for required systems the services have never included in presidential budget proposals for the Guard.

Items such as MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerials systems for the Army Guard and C-130J Hercules cargo planes for the Air Guard are again not found for the Guard in the fiscal 2024 budget request. The systems are NGAUS legislative priorities.

“With a defense budget of over $840 billion,” says retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, the association president, “we have a prioritization problem, not a resource problem.”

The proposal does continue modernizing the Army Guard in some areas. It includes 50 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 24 AH-64E Guardian attack helicopters, 34 M1A2 SEP v3 Abrams tanks, 24 M109A7 Paladin howitzers and 360 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles for the primary combat reserve of the U.S. Army.

But the sum cost of the equipment represents only a tiny fraction of the record $170 billion for procurement in the budget request.

The proposal maintains the Army Guard’s end strength at 325,000 soldiers and keeps Army Guard force structure at 27 combat brigade teams, eight combat aviation brigades and two theater aviation brigades. It also retains the Army’s Regionally Aligned Readiness and Modernization, or ReARMM, model that focuses on division-centric formations.

“Unfortunately, there is no mention of the Army National Guard’s eight combat divisions in the president’s budget,” said retired Col. Mike Hadley, the association’s vice president for government affairs.

The budget request would also provide $340.2 million for Army Guard military construction projects in 13 states and territories: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. Fiscal 2023 defense appropriations included $459 million for Army Guard MILCON projects in 17 states, $161.7 million more than the president requested.

But even the fiscal 2023 amount is a small portion of the need. Many Army Guard armories were designed for a Cold War-era force. The 2014 Army National Guard Readiness Center Transformation Master Plan said it would take $1.4 billion a year for 15 years to meet 80% of space requirements and increase their condition index to “fair.”

This year’s $459 million is the most the Army Guard has seen since 2014. Meanwhile, construction costs have only increased.

The unfunded priority list the Army provided to Congress after the budget release does include $265 million for additional Army Guard MILCON projects. It also has $533 million to replace more of the Army Guard’s analog main battle tanks.

With a defense budget of over $840 billion, we have a prioritization problem, not a resource problem.

—Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson (Ret.), the NGAUS president

THE DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE’S SLICE of the pie is $259 billion, far more than the Army, but the figure is deceiving. About $44 billion is classified funds that pass through the department to other agencies. The net is $215.1 billion — $185 billion for the Air Force, a 3% increase over its 2023 budget, while the Space Force would get $30 billion, a 15% boost.

Air Force officials want to accelerate their divest-to-invest program in fiscal 2024. They have targeted 310 older aircraft. They want to acquire 95 new ones while investing in the development of future platforms such as the B-21 Raider bomber, the Next-Generation Air Dominance system fighter and new stealth tankers.

Aircraft retirements include 32 early model F-22 Raptor fighters, 57 F-15C/D Eagle fighters, two E-3 Sentry AWACS, 48 MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, 42 A-10 Thunderbolt II fighters and 24 KC-10 tankers, according to budget documents. Some of the fighters figure to come from the Air Guard, which flies the oldest versions of the aircraft.

New aircraft in the request includes 72 new fighters — 48 F-35A Lightning IIs and 24 F-15EX Eagle IIs. None are specifically directed to the Air Guard, but F-35A fielding plans for fiscal 2024 and beyond include Guard wings in Florida and Massachusetts, while Guard units in California, Louisiana and Oregon are on the schedule for F-15EXs.

Congress could decrease the retirements and/or increase the buys. Lawmakers have routinely blocked the service from divesting aircraft, and they are concerned about the Air Force cutting so much capacity to chase added capability, raising questions about whether the service will get the aircraft cuts it wants for 2024.

“I understand the divesting-to-invest concept, but I’m alarmed at the risk and the timing,” Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., told Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “My concern is that this represents an invitation to China to be even more aggressive.”

The budget request does include $71.2 million for aging C-130H Hercules cargo plane modifications. It also has $66.3 million for active electronically scanned array radars for the Air Guard’s F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters.

The proposal would also provide $178.7 million for Air Guard MILCON projects in five states: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and Oregon. Fiscal 2023 defense appropriations included $279.3 million for Air Guard MILCON projects in 11 states, $130.4 million more than the president requested. The Air Force UFR list has $72 million for six Guard projects in five states. The document also includes funds for more F-16 AESA radars for Guard fighters.

Congress only recently received the fiscal 2024 budget request, but Pentagon leaders are worried lawmakers won’t complete work on a defense budget before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The potential gridlock of a divided Congress is only part of the concern. A bigger issue is Capitol Hill’s penchant for missing deadlines.

In 13 of the last 14 years, Congress has failed to pass a budget before the start of the fiscal year. Each time, the federal government had to begin the year under a continuing resolution, which is a stopgap measure that funds operations at the previous year’s levels with no new programs. Among other problems, it puts some modernizations efforts on hold.

“My greatest fear today is a delay or even worse a failure to provide the Department of the Air Force and Department of Defense with timely authorization and appropriations,” Kendall warned in March. “That would be a gift to China. It’s a gift that we cannot afford.”

John Goheen can be reached at [email protected].


Fiscal 2024 Defense Budget Request

● Requests $842 billion for the Defense  Department, an increase of $26 billion, or 3.1%, over fiscal 2023
● Includes $170 billion for procurement, the largest amount ever requested
● Provides a 5.2% pay raise for the uniformed military and civil servants

Army National Guard
● Maintains personnel end-strength at 325,000 soldiers
● Buys 50 new or rebuilt UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and 24 rebuilt AH-64E Apache Block IIIA attack helicopters
● Procures 34 M1A2s SEP v3 tanks, 24 M109A7 self-propelled howitzers and 360 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles
● Funds major construction projects in 12 states and Puerto Rico

Air National Guard
● Maintains personnel end-strength at 108,400 airmen
● Keeps 90 wings but reduces fleet from 944 to 921 aircraft
● Includes funds for C-130H modifications and AESA radars for F-16 Fighting Falcons
● Funds major construction projects in five states

Source: Defense Department