An Epic Congressional Failure on Defense

May 13, 2015
Capitol with scaffolding

With versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2016 being completed by their respective Armed Services committees (HASC last week and SASC likely at the end of this week), the House and Senate will now work to gain passage by their full chambers and reconcile differences over the next couple of weeks. Although not a spending document itself, the NDAA sets the legal framework within which the defense budget will be debated this summer and, with luck, enacted in the fall. It also tells the Department of Defense what it must or cannot do in various areas. For example, it can deny the Pentagon the ability to retire specific airplanes, require it to spend money in very specific ways on specific programs, or direct it to report to Congress on identified issues. Congress has the responsibility and obligation to exercise oversight of the funding it provides to DOD. But the current debate swirling around the FY16 NDAA is both fascinating and horrifying: like watching Rome burn. It lays bare the inability of Congress to deal with the central issues plaguing the condition of America’s military posture, most notably the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the source of sequestration) and entitlement spending (the primary driver of national debt), both of which form a heavy millstone around our nation’s neck.

Just five years ago the Army was building toward 48 brigade combat teams (BCTs). Today it has 32, a number that will likely drop to 24 or so by 2020 if sequestration spending levels remain in place. The Navy is at 272 ships. It plans to build to 308, but the total fleet will likely fall below 270 given the cost of ships and the limited funding being made available to build them. The Marine Corps had 27 infantry battalions just a few years ago but is now doing everything it can to maintain 24 on the way to 21 should BCA-levels of funding remain. The Air Force is sacrificing nearly everything to acquire the F-35. It cites profound budget shortfalls as the primary reason for trying to eliminate the A-10, KC-10, U-2, and other portions of its air fleet.

But don’t take my word for it. Recent service chief testimonies to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees illustrate the current condition of our military, the deleterious effect the Budget Control Act is having, and the very real-world problems the military services are facing. Borrowing from their testimony, let’s take each service in turn.


In providing their annual report on the posture of the U.S. Army, Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond Odierno stated that the Army needs at least 450,000 soldiers in the active component to execute the current defense strategy. In reality, the current end-strength of 490,000 allows it to maintain only 32 BCTs. At the 450,000 level, BCTs can be expected to drop into the high 20s. At 420,000 active duty troops — the level expected should sequestration continue — that number will drop to the mid-20s. According to Odierno, under full sequestration, “the Army cannot fully implement its role in the defense strategy.” The Army has testified that the FY16 spending cap is insufficient for operating in the current, and worsening, global security environment.

Why is that? It’s simple — it’s too small and it cannot even pay for what it does have. Per the Army’s posture statement, “it takes approximately 30 months [2 ½ years] to generate a fully manned and trained Regular Army BCT” and “senior headquarters … take even longer.” A capability can be eliminated in short order, but takes years to reconstitute … perhaps a reality lost on Congress. Additionally, the Army’s current aviation structure is simply unaffordable at current levels of funding. Consequently, the Army has concluded it must eliminate over 700 aircraft. At sequestration-restricted funding caps, the Army can maintain only one-third of its force at acceptable levels of readiness.

Air Force

Gen. Mark A. Welsh recently stated, “The Air Force is the smallest and oldest it has ever been,” a condition unlikely to be corrected in the near future. The replacement aircraft it is buying, and which Congress supports, are among the most expensive in its history, increasingly challenging its ability to maintain sufficient numbers within a fixed budget. At current levels of funding, there simply isn’t enough money to keep the Air Force from shrinking and aging further.

Drawing directly from Welsh’s testimony, consider that the average age of aircraft in its inventory is 27 years (planned service life for aircraft is generally 20 years or so); the newest B-52 bomber is 53 years old. Since Desert Storm, the Air Force has reduced its inventory over 3,000 aircraft, from 8,600 to 5,452. Since FY12, it has lost $64 billion in funding. If the Air Force shut off all utilities at all major installations for 12 years, or quit all flying for nearly two years, it would save only $12 billion — enough to buy back just one year of sequestered funds.

Denied the ability to shed more aircraft, close bases, or adjust compensation, the Air Force has only three options for living within its means: shed people, reduce spending on readiness, or delay modernization. The other services face those same options, too.


To meet operational requirements, the Navy keeps about one-third of its fleet underway in a deployed status. At 270 or so ships, that means approximately 95 are available for daily use. But these 95 are spread globally, meaning only 50-60 or so are available in the Western Pacific. Meanwhile, China fields a navy of 270 or more ships and can leverage shore-based weapons to influence operations far out to sea.

The cumulative effect of budget shortfalls due to the Budget Control Act has resulted in the Navy’s accepting significant risk to meet defense strategy requirements, as stated by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, who further clarified this to mean that, “ships will arrive late to a combat zone, and engage in conflict without the benefit of markedly superior combat systems, sensors and networks, or desired levels of munitions inventories. In real terms, this means longer timelines to achieve victory, more military and civilian lives lost, and potentially less credibility to deter adversaries and assure allies in the future.”

The Navy’s problems will only compound in future years given that it faces a bow-wave of very high modernization costs. It must replace the Ohio-class submarine, continue producing the Ford-class aircraft carrier, create a new class of small surface combatant, and continue to replace various combat logistics vessels (without which the Navy’s fleet cannot fight), all items highlighted by Greenert in his testimony. The Navy can now surge only one-third of the force required by Combatant Commanders to meet contingency requirements. Current maintenance backlogs resulting from sequestration to date will take approximately five years to clear.

Marine Corps

The Marine Corps is on a permanent deployment-to-dwell cycle of 1:2, meaning a Marine deploys for 6-7 months, returns home for 12-14 months, then starts the cycle again, a matter of substantial concern to Gen. Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps, who views this as a pacing issue of sorts in that it reflects the stresses being placed on the Marines that make up the Corps and the overall readiness of the Corps as a combat force. The more often people and equipment are deployed for extended use, the more rapidly the force is worn-down and the more it costs to return it to fighting shape. The problem is that the Marine Corps only has three-quarters to two-thirds of the number of battalions it has historically needed to meet operational requirements. Like the Army and Air Force, it has been forced to adopt “tiered” readiness, defer maintenance, and delay some modernization efforts due to lack of adequate funding.

A Dangerous Path

The Heritage Foundation’s “2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength,” attempts to provide a needs-based assessment of the status of U.S. military power. To establish a reasonable benchmark for how much military force the United States should have, the Index examined a series of blue-ribbon studies — including every Quadrennial Defense Review and National Defense Panel report from the past 30 years as well as the history of U.S. commitments to major conventional wars since World War II. That exhaustive review indicated that the United States needs an active Army of 50 BCTs, a Marine Corps of 36 battalions, a Navy of at least 346 ships (including 15 aircraft carriers and 45-50 amphibious ships), and an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft, not counting those needed to protect U.S. airspace.

Clearly, current funding levels are profoundly short of the spending historically necessary, and made available, to ensure the United States is able to protect its most vital national interests. By 2020, the United States will spend more on paying interest on its national debt than it does on the defense budget and will start shouldering the additional fiscal burden of Baby Boomers moving into their retirement years and placing ever increasing demands on nondiscretionary spending like Social Security and Medicare.

The dramatically expanded Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account is a gimmick or “work-around” to compensate for Congress’s inability to solve the Budget Control Act dilemma it created in 2011. No one in Congress likes it but even deficit-hawks like Senator McCain acknowledge that at present it is the only way to stem the decline of defense. Though it may enable the services to stave off further declines in readiness and preserve some modernization, it will not allow the services to maintain necessary capacity, nor will it enable them to fix the more fundamental problems leading to the shrinking, aging, and less-ready posture of the U.S. military in the first place.

Critics of defense spending typically note several areas they think should be cut. They include:

  • Growth of staffs, especially among civilians at the Pentagon,
  • Increased bureaucratic layering,
  • Compensation costs, including health care, retirement, and related benefits associated with service,
  • Excess infrastructure,
  • And lack of competition among defense suppliers that would presumably drive down the cost of platforms, weapons, and supporting systems.

Yet Congress has prevented the Department of Defense from directly addressing these areas. It has prohibited the Pentagon from adjusting pay and benefits and has barred it from even considering or planning for another round of base realignment and closure. Further, Congress supports service efforts to reduce the variety of platforms that constitute a capability under the guise of achieving greater efficiencies and lower cost of ownership yet levies additional demands for reports, plans, and accountability mechanisms all of which require additional people and resources to produce. As but one example, the Department must submit an annual aviation plan that covers the Future Years Defense Program, showing Congress how the services are making best use of funding for aviation … presumably a good thing. But, the latest report cost $1,112,901 to produce, and it has to be submitted every year.

What are the consequences? Unfortunately, the services are left with few options other than to reduce the number of people they pay, reduce what they spend to keep the force ready and competent, or defer replacing current equipment that has been prematurely aged due to over a decade of constant use. The services are forced to continue spending what money they do receive on things they don’t need, don’t want, or can’t afford. Businesses are forced out of the defense industry, a natural result when a single manufacturer wins the contract for the single platform that will constitute the totality of a given capability. And to do the work demanded by Congress, the services must either hire more civilians or contractors (since fewer uniformed personnel are available) or divert more of their shrinking funds to producing reports that, in all likelihood, very few people will ever read anyway.

Simply put: Congress created the problem that has resulted in a steadily shrinking, aging, and less-ready force; it cannot agree on any way to undo it; it continues to levy more demands on the military while restricting the military’s ability to adjust to its environment; and it is now looking for quick fixes to mitigate the damage without getting to the actual problem itself.

In reality, this problem has no easy answers, no simple solutions. As long as funding is fixed by law at BCA levels, the defense posture of the United States will continue to decay. And as long as Congress avoids the more important national spending crisis — the non-discretionary accounts over which DOD has no authority — the United States will have no option other than to sacrifice its security.

A glance at news headlines on any given day is quite disheartening. We see Russia dismantling Europe; a paranoid and delusional nuclear-armed regime in North Korea; an increasingly aggressive China bent on regional hegemony, and a Middle East and Africa bedeviled by problems in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, much of North Africa, Nigeria and more. Given the widespread deterioration of the global security environment, now seems to be a poor time to sap the military strength of America — especially in deference to policies that will only worsen the problem.


Dakota L. Wood is a senior research fellow specializing in defense programs for The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.


Photo credit: brownpau (adapted by WOTR)