Army machine stalls as Congress plays politics

Military leaders, lawmakers say funding cuts will damage readiness and modernization

Skelton Letter to the President on Army Readiness

The Army’s funding problems are having a deep impact on current and future operations, according to the testimony of senior Army officials who say congressional tactics and rising war costs are depleting the mission readiness of units. Those issues are forcing postponement of needed efforts to replace wornout equipment and modernize the armed forces.

The service announced July 19 that it would extend severe spending restrictions, which it imposed in May, throughout fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007. Those constraints were imposed because of congressional delays in passing an emergency supplemental funding bill.

But Army officials are concerned about long-term effects. “We must not mortgage the future readiness of the force by focusing our resources only on the current challenges,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker before the House Armed Services Committee in June.

Schoomaker said the Army needs $17.1 billion in additional supplemental funding in fiscal 2007 to replace wornout equipment and as much as $13 billion a year for two to three years after. Committee Democrats, including ranking member Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), echoed Schoomaker’s call for funding.

“The readiness rates for equipment have fallen so far that I fear they now present a strategic risk to respond to contingencies we may face beyond our current commitments in Iraq and in Afghanistan,” Skelton said.

Under the spending restrictions, the Army has limited supply purchases to critical wartime needs, canceled all travel that isn’t mission-essential, stopped shipments of goods that are not war-related, frozen hiring of civilians, released temporary employees, frozen new contract awards and task orders, and restricted the use of government purchase cards.

Now, the Army is anticipating further cuts in the fiscal 2007 Defense Appropriations bill, according to a recent news release.

On July 20, the Senate marked up its version of the bill, which would give the Defense Department $453.6 billion. That amount includes a $50 billion bridge fund for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is $9 billion less than President Bush’s budget request and $5 billion less than the version the House passed last month.

Following passage of the House version on June 20, the president threatened a veto based on the nature of the cuts and warned that the “reductions could undermine the readiness and preparedness of the U.S. forces.”

Much of the lost funding went to other subcommittees for domestic programs. The full committee gave increases to the departments of Agriculture, Labor, Education, and Housing and Urban Development, among others.

The Army is paying a price for congressional budget tactics, said Baker Spring, a defense analyst and fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Congress will cut DOD’s base budget and use emergency supplement bills to hide personal projects, Spring said. Congress uses those methods to get around spending caps, which are not present in the supplemental spending bills, he said.

Congress’ use of legislative approaches that delay the process does have a real cost, he added. “When you do that, you’re really hurting the military.”

Spring said that core defense programs, including research, development and acquisition, are not likely to be restored in a supplemental budget. Technology and modernization programs, therefore, suffer permanent damage, he added.

Army technology officials recognize that their programs have the lowest priority right now. “When push comes to shove funding-wise, it’s going to go to the current systems that are out there and what needs to happen today,” said Kevin Carroll, program executive officer at the Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems.

New systems and integrated solutions will be pushed back, Carroll said. “The plan before was not to spend on the legacy systems but put that new functionality in the future,” he said. “But with the war now, I can’t wait for the future. Put that functionality in right now.”

Meanwhile, various commands are taking steps to address short- and long-term funding challenges. “We’re looking at every avenue to save money,” said Dean Sprague, a PEO-EIS spokesman.

But implementation of the spending restrictions varies among commands. High-ranking generals exempted projects from the cuts. The Land War Net Conference in August and the Association of the U.S. Army conference in October will go on despite the new rules, Sprague said.

Programs that support critical warfighter needs will continue, but new projects will be postponed indefinitely, he added.

War makes strange bedfellows

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, demanded that the government take action on Army readiness in a letter to President Bush July 25.

“Nearly every nondeployed combat brigade in the active Army is reporting that they are not ready to complete their assigned wartime missions,” Skelton wrote. “With our current readiness figures, we are at serious risk of not being able to defend this nation without unacceptable losses.”

The letter calls on Bush to prepare an additional supplemental funding bill for armed forces readiness, totaling $17.1 billion in fiscal 2007 and at least $12 billion a year going forward. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker quoted those figures during congressional testimony in June.

The situation pits Schoomaker and Skelton against Republican lawmakers, who cut Bush’s military budget request.

— Josh Rogin

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