WASHINGTON — The ongoing fight in Congress over an $18-billion hike in military spending for 2017 has stalled the budget, but it might be small potatoes.
The price tag to rehabilitate the military after about 15 years of war and relentless overseas operations would be about $1 trillion over a decade, according to the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee.
The committee is spearheading the $18-billion annual increase for more equipment, training and troops. But it is facing a tough political fight with the Senate and Democrats, who oppose busting defense spending caps and raiding the Islamic State war fund to pay for the hike.
A $1 trillion increase would require obliterating spending limits passed by Congress and doling out an average of an additional $100 billion each year on the military through 2027.
Such an increase appears highly unlikely on Capitol Hill where budget gridlock and stop-gap legislative solutions have become normal. It foreshadows the hard political fight ahead for Republican defense hawks who want more money for a military that they say is depleted, inexperienced and unready for war with major world powers such as Russia and China.
“We think the number is $100 billion a year … and you’d need that for more than a decade to put the military back on its feet,” said Bob Simmons, the staff director for the House Armed Services Committee, which plays a lead role in setting defense policy and spending.
Return to record-high budgets
The $1 trillion increase would mean a return to earlier record-high, wartime budgets before Congress capped federal spending in the name of fiscal responsibility in 2011. It also assumes the United States will continue its global antiterrorism operations while building a military to fight major air and ground wars – assumptions backed by the Pentagon and expert assessments this week.
For now, budget caps are set to keep downward pressure on military spending for the next five years unless lawmakers strike a long-term budget deal, which many people believe will be difficult.
The House is now wrangling with the Senate Armed Services Committee over the $18-billion hike in the 2017 defense budget. Due to spending caps, the increase would come out of the U.S. overseas war fund and cause operations against the Islamic State group to run out of money in April.
Negotiations broke off this month after lawmakers could not reach a deal and the talks are not likely to resume until later this fall.
Evidence of a crisis
The House committee has been ringing an alarm over what it says is a military readiness crisis. Simmons said the committee uncovered evidence of deep and growing shortcomings within the military during recent fact-finding visits to bases throughout the United States.
It found services are experiencing a permanent loss of traditional combat experience after focusing on counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.
Soldiers below the rank of major with a combat aviation brigade at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, a key Army air training facility, had never trained as a unit with a ground component, according to committee staff. Instead, the Army has spent its time operating in two-ship formations running medevac and other counter-insurgency missions.
There are also critical shortages of equipment such as aircraft, which are being pushed into the war against the Islamic State group while troops at home try to make due, committee staff told Stars and Stripes. At Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, the committee said an F-16 squadron had 30 pilots with only four aircraft flying. Overall, the Air Force has reduced its flying-hour requirements and begun using half-size squadrons.
Troops with certain occupational specialties are in short supply, according to the committee investigation. For example, Army armored units in South Korea are running critically short on master gunners.
Military brass also warned Congress of overstressed, underprepared forces as recently as last week. But the claim of a crisis remains controversial among some experts who have argued the military has been stressed but remains relatively well-funded and war-ready.
No rest for U.S. forces
There were strong indications that U.S. forces will get no break – and could face new threats in the future.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned Thursday of “a Middle East in flames where America’s influence has been squandered” without deeper intervention in Syria where the United States is now waging an air and special operations war against the Islamic State group since 2014.
President Barack Obama’s administration has repeatedly warned the Islamic State war in Iraq and Syria will be a slog. Foreign policy experts warned House lawmakers Wednesday to plan for the fight in the Middle East to last at least another 15 years.
“This turmoil that we see now is going to go on” and it is better to destroy Islamic extremists there rather than fighting tens of thousands “scattered around the globe,” said Brian Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation.
The war and counter-terrorism operations will take a considerable military effort, said James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq and a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank.
“If we set out to contain these movements they will beat us, if we set out to destroy them, we will probably succeed in containing them,” Jeffrey said.
Meanwhile, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday again warned Congress that Russia poses the most significant threat to the country.
Tensions are increasing with Russia, a resurgent world power that has been implicated in computer hacking aimed at the U.S. presidential election and has massed military forces around Ukraine following its annexation of Crimea. The Army is sending armored units back to Europe as a counterbalance.
Russia also has been competing with the United States for influence in war-torn Syria and aiming to prop up the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Dunford said Russia’s activities around the world and its capabilities with nuclear weapons, cyber warfare and underseas warfare are an increasing concern.
“It is a pattern of operations we haven’t seen for over 20 years,” he said.