Emergency war spending bill sacrifices IT

Bush shifts technology funds to border security

A joint congressional conference committee agreed to an emergency supplemental spending bill June 8 that reroutes money from critical technology programs to fund border security initiatives. The legislation reduces funding for technologies currently needed for both the Iraq war and domestic disaster relief.

The administration is “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Michelle Flournoy, a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When you start trading off a top priority against a top priority, that represents a serious problem.”

In a May 17 letter to Congress, President Bush requested specific cuts in funding for an array of systems currently in use in global operations. Those cuts span all four military services and include many communications and technology programs. In total, Bush asked Congress to redirect $1.9 billion from his initial proposal toward activities such as deploying National Guard troops to the southern U.S. border.

The joint conference committee accepted the administration’s request with no significant changes, a Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman said. Congress still must vote to pass the legislation. The Army, in particular, has enacted severe spending cuts in an effort to reduce expenses pending the release of the supplemental funds.

The Army’s Joint Network Node, Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS), and Information System Security programs are among the line items that lost major funding. Money for JNN, which was to get $854 million, and SINCGARS, which was to receive $692 million, was reduced in each case by 30 percent. ISS funding, set to be $96 million, was eliminated entirely.

JNN, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, allows commanders to make voice-over-IP calls and handle broadband data communications worldwide via a mobile satellite system. JNN was used in the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, allowing workers to coordinate relief efforts despite a damaged communications infrastructure.

SINCGARS is the standard VHF-FM radio used by Army and Marine Corps forces and is essential for communications between units in convoys. Two years ago, troops bought their own two-way radios from Radio Shack because of a shortage of SINCGARS radios for convoy operations.

ISS protects Defense Department networks from hacking attempts and intelligence gathering by foreign entities.

Forcing the Army to shortchange programs while operations are under way is extreme and harmful, Flournoy said. The Army is also facing long-term pressure to find ways to save money while trying to transform and modernize.

“The real measure here isn’t money, the real measure is military preparedness,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “The fact that these budget cuts are digging into tactical and strategic IT initiatives means that we’re going to be less prepared.”

The current and future success of the U.S. military depends on investments in technology, he said.

Information technology funding is already scarce, said Trey Hodgkins, director of defense programs at the IT Association of America. IT budgets have remained static in recent years amid surges in funding for the rest of the military. However, military IT activities have increased steadily in the same time period as branches learn to do more with less, he said.

ITAA sent a letter to lawmakers on the conference committee June 2 to protest the redistribution of IT appropriations to border security.

“We believe that these moves are extremely short-sighted and will be counterproductive to the goal of making the [Defense] Department and the [military] services more nimble to threats abroad and at home, while taking on more responsibility and new roles as a responder for natural disasters,” ITAA officials wrote.

The supplemental spending totals $94.5 billion, with $65.8 billion going toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress is likely to vote on the bill this week, and President Bush could sign it as early as June 16. Congress received the original funding request from the administration in February.

The services have been scrambling to make ends meet while waiting for emergency funding to come through. The Army, which is most affected by the delay, has been implementing severe spending cuts since May 26, including canceling all nonessential supplies, travel, training and civilian hiring. Other belt-tightening measures are being enacted DOD-wide.

Funding for Stryker combat vehicles, Apache helicopters and night vision equipment was cut in the president’s supplemental funding request, which could affect ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How the dollars stack upThe War and Disaster Assistance Supplemental Conference Report includes:

  • $65.8 billion to support Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

  • $4 billion to assist allies in the global war on terrorism.

  • $19.8 billion for disaster assistance.

  • $1.9 billion to bolster border security.

  • $3.7 billion for levee repair and flood control.

  • $2.3 billion for pandemic flu preparedness and prevention.

    The total package comes in near President Bush’s amended request of $98.7 billion and below the Senate’s original legislation providing $108.9 billion. The House bill had requested $91.9 billion.

    Source: House Appropriations Committee

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