Following a great deal of backroom dealing, Congress passed and the President signed a fiscal year 2016 omnibus spending bill. At a hefty $1.1 trillion, the bill includes nearly $573 billion in defense spending. Here are a few of the highlights from the 2,000-plus-page bill:
Overseas Contingency Operations Fund Persists
Congress continued the budget gimmick of bolstering Pentagon funding with an additional $58.8 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund this year. That’s funding on top of $548 billion in base defense spending. OCO is a supplemental fund that is supposed to be used to support emergency war spending overseas, but that has been used in the past to purchase weapons the Pentagon doesn’t even want and fund regular operations and maintenance costs that have traditionally been funded through the base budget. The use of this fund allows lawmakers and the Pentagon to avoid mandatory caps dictated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The OCO fund promotes fiscal irresponsibility by allowing Pentagon planners and Congress to justify excess spending on favored programs by claiming it is needed for ongoing war efforts, even though by the Pentagon’s own accounting over $71 billion has been spent on non-war spending. The latest budget provides the Air Force with an additional $128,900,000 in OCO funds for aircraft procurement: “Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress for Overseas Contingency Operations/Global War on Terrorism (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 pg. 363).” Congress should hold the Pentagon to the same budget standard and operate within a normal base-line budget in the same manner as other government agencies. Doing so would be an excellent first step towards better national security decisions.
Troublingly, budget gimmicks appear to be a trend in this budget cycle. The Navy succeeded in convincing Congress to create a special fund to pay for the next generation of ballistic missile submarine, claiming this part of the nuclear triad is a “national asset” rather than a regular part of the fleet. Called the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund,” it will allow the Navy to develop the new class of ships without paying for it through its regular ship-building budget. So far, no money has been added to the account because the Senate refused to transfer funds into it this time around. Aside from not promoting spending discipline within the services, this move also has the potential to establish a dangerous precedent. Other services could just as easily claim other programs, like the Long-Range Strike Bomber, are “national assets” in order to secure additional funding outside of their regular budgets.
Yet More Joint Strike Fighters
The latest budget also funds construction for even more F-35s Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) beyond the Pentagon’s request, despite the aircraft’s lackluster performance during the past year. Congress was actually quite generous to the Pentagon in this respect, providing it with $4.5 billion for additional purchases beyond what planners had requested.
The Department of Defense has already committed to purchasing 227 F-35 aircraft according to the Congressional Research Service, even though initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) to determine the program’s readiness to go into operation will not be complete until 2019. For this budget, the Department of Defense asked for $11 billion to purchase 57 new F-35s. Military planners wanted to buy 44 F-35As for the Air Force, 9 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps, and 4 F-35Cs for the Navy. The budget deal increases the buy of F-35s by 11 at a cost of $1.33 billion. The Air Force will receive 3additional planes, the Marine Corps 6, and the Navy 2.
The increased buy of Joint Strike Fighters comes following a rough year for the troubled program as it struggles to meet performance expectations. Over the summer, a leaked memo written by an F-35 test pilot showed the new plane was consistently outmatched by a 30-year-old F-16, one of the very planes the F-35 is designed to replace. The Air Force had to ground some F-35 pilots when it was discovered that a combination of the ejection seat design and the weighty futuristic helmet could snap the necks of lighter pilots should they be forced to eject from a crashing plane.
JSF supporters touted a major victory when the Marine Corps claimed its short take-off, vertical landing variant was ready for combat at the end of July. For justification, the Marine Corps pointed to what it called “Operational Test-1,” a series of test flights from the USS Wasp in late May. The Marine Corps said the test proved the F-35 could operate from an amphibious aircraft carrier. But it later emerged that the event did not qualify as an operational test replicating combat operations, but was rather just a demonstration. A report prepared by the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation, the top Pentagon weapons tester, detailed a myriad of maintenance and readiness problems experienced during the exercise.
The JSF Program Office says it is working to fix all the problems with the plane. But rather than waiting until solutions are found, Congress and the Pentagon persist in purchasing new aircraft. Testing continues which will inevitably uncover more problems. The planes already in service will then have to undergo a costly retrofitting process to incorporate new design modifications. For this reason alone, the decision to purchase even more planes in 2016 is an irresponsible acceleration of a foolish acquisition strategy. Future decisions to increase production should be contingent upon the F-35 achieving operational testing benchmarks.
Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility Just Won’t Die
Unfortunately the omnibus bill for FY 2016 continues to provide funding for the construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX), one of the biggest earmarks of all time. The MOX facility, located at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, would convert nuclear weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, but MOX is over budget, behind schedule, and lacks a single potential customer. The FY 2016 omnibus bill provides $340 million for continuing construction, which is enough to keep the project alive but not enough to move it forward. In fact, an independent study by The Aerospace Corporation this year found that continued funding at this level would skyrocket the total cost to $114 billion and delay completion to 2100 (that’s not a typo: 2100). MOX was originally expected to cost $1.6 billion and be fully operational in 2007.
The A-10 Lives On to Fight Another Day
Congress continued to support ground troops by funding the A-10, despite continued efforts by Air Force headquarters to relegate it to the scrap heap. In no uncertain terms, the bill states: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to divest, retire, transfer, or place in storage or on backup aircraft inventory status, or prepare to divest, retire, transfer, or place in storage or on backup aircraft inventory status, any A-10 aircraft, or to disestablish any units of the active or reserve component associated with such aircraft.”
Despite the strong language and a clear desire to see the A-10 remain in the inventory until a suitable replacement is ready, Air Force leadership is not expected to stop its efforts to retire the A-10 in the coming months.
JLENS Remains Grounded
Residents of Pennsylvania can rest assured they will not see any runaway military balloons flying over their homes…at least for the rest of this fiscal year. Congress cut funding for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) program by nearly $20 million, citing a test schedule delay. As officials continue to investigate how one of the 240-foot-long aerostat balloons broke loose from its mooring in October, the entire program hangs in limbo.
Congress passed this spending bill with far less reflection than one would expect considering the enormous cost to the American people. The final version of the 2,000-plus-page bill was made public less than 48 hours before the final votes were cast. It is highly unlikely those Members not directly involved in the law’s drafting were able to carefully review the final version.