Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned Wednesday that the GOP-authored budget passed by Congress is “clearly a road to nowhere” and pleaded with senators to approve a multiyear budget that allows the department to plan ahead.
The Republican plan meets the president’s $585.3 billion budget request for the Defense Department for fiscal 2016, but does so by providing $38 billion in extra money as part of an overseas contingency operations account, meant to cover temporary cost of overseas conflicts, not permanent funding needs.
Mr. Carter said including extra money in the war chest instead of the base budget leaves the department no stability to plan on a multiyear budget.
“While this approach clearly recognizes that the budget total we’ve requested is needed, the avenue it takes is just as clearly a road to nowhere,” Mr. Carter said in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
He said year-to-year fixes leave too much uncertainty for both military personnel and their families as well as defense contractors who are trying to do business with the department.
“Our defense industry partners too need stability and longer-term-plans — not end-of-year crises or short-term fixes — if they are to be as efficient and cutting-edge as we need them to be,” he said.
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Mr. Carter urged lawmakers to find a permanent solution to sequestration cuts, which could put the military’s readiness in jeopardy if allowed to continue, he said.
“The magnitude of the cuts would stress the most capable of planners and programmers, but the stresses have been made ever greater because of the frequently sudden and unpredictable timing and nature of the cuts,” he said. “As a result, DOD has been forced to make a series of incremental, inefficient decisions.”
Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, called using the war chest to fund the department a “budget gimmick” and said lawmakers must find a solution to sequestration for every department, not just the Defense Department.
“I believe this effort is not the right way to address the problem,” Mr. Durbin said. “Congress must address funding shortfalls for the entire government and do it responsibly.”
House members passed the budget plan last week, and the Senate voted 51-48 to approve it Tuesday night. The budget does not need to be signed by the president and will be used as a non-binding blueprint to guide the writing of appropriations bills.
The president has threatened to veto spending bills that only lift sequestration budget caps for the Defense Department, not the entire government.
Democrats also raised the issue that the military’s national security mission could suffer if other agencies like the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA and other law enforcement have their budgets slashed. The Defense Department could be forced to step in to fill holes under their own tight budgets, they said.
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said the Pentagon’s strategy “will become unhinged even if you get the OCO money” because of sequestration’s effect on other parts of government.
In addition to agencies like the State Department or intelligence agencies that obviously aid national defense, Mr. Carter said many often forget about the link between things like education and the defense of the country because the military has to recruit from Americans who benefit from other domestic services.
“We have a magnificent force in terms of quality of people we have, that’s because we were able to be selective from a large pool,” he said. “You need to make sure we have future generations like that.”
The secretary said that as the department has had to contend with shrinking budgets and fiscal uncertainty, the world has become more “tumultuous.”
“I believe our defense program is now unbalanced,” Mr. Carter said. “We’ve been forced to prioritize force structure and readiness over modernization, taking on risks in capabilities and infrastructure that are far too great.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said that the U.S. is now facing threats from state actors like Russia, China and Iran, as well as non-state actors like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda at the same time.
“For the first time in my career, they are both manifesting themselves simultaneously,” he said. “This is not a time to be withdrawing from the world.”