Budget delays mystify defense officials

Defense officials are shaking their heads in disbelief as congressional leaders continue to delay passing a wartime defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2011, which began last October.

With the military spending bill now more than five months overdue, lawmakers Wednesday passed a new stopgap “continuing resolution” to last two weeks, so Defense and other federal departments can continue at least to spend at last year’s budget level.

But the resolution doesn’t account for inflation on so many things the military buys including medical care, fuel and supplies, as well as thousands of service and manufacturing contracts. This has left the services scrambling to close funding gaps in critical accounts, including personnel and health care, by moving money from elsewhere in their budgets.

The result is billions of defense contracting dollars wasted and force readiness falling, defense officials warned this week in testimony before the Senate and House defense appropriation subcommittees.

“We’ve been holding our breath so long that we are starting to turn blue,” Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale, the comptroller and chief financial officer, bluntly told senators.

Hale and Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III described how budget delays have raised defense costs by creating enormous inefficiencies. These threaten to offset the effect of efficiency initiatives Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a task force painstakingly identified over the last year.

“This undercuts that greatly,” Lynn said.

Under the temporary resolution, the services can’t get full funding of must-pay bills such as for pay raises and health care. Monies then must be moved from other accounts, affecting readiness and modernization goals.

The services so far have suspended 75 construction projects. The Army and Marine Corps have imposed temporary civilian hiring freezes. The Navy cut the length of advance notice given to sailors and families to prepare for change-of-station moves, to two months from six. It also delayed contracting for a second Virginia-class submarine this year and delayed buying equipment for a DDG-51 destroyer. The Army has deferred the purchase of Chinook helicopters, the refurbishing of war-torn Humvees and has issued a temporary stop-work order on its Stryker Mobile Gun System.

“These are costly actions that we will want to reverse,” Hale said, but that will not be done “at the same price.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, defense subcommittee chairman, acknowledged the myriad of problems that a divided Congress has created.

“The readiness of our forces is beginning to be threatened as flying hours and streaming days are reduced, exercises and training events are canceled, equipment is foregoing much needed maintenance,” he said.

Republicans and Democrats continued to play politics with the defense money bill even after the new Congress convened. The House passed its 2011 defense appropriations bill but tied it to controversial deficit-reduction continuing resolution. Senate Democrats rejected it, saying that the resolution language would decimate many domestic programs on which a recovering economy relies.

Inouye expects that another temporary budget pact might have to be passed when the two-week continuing resolution expires in mid-March. By April, lawmakers hope to be able to pass an agreement that would last through Sept. 30, but with a full 2011 defense appropriations bill attached.

Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the chorus of defense officials this week in warning of more dire consequences if a resolution is allowed to freeze defense spending through all of 2011. In effect, that would cut $23 billion arbitrarily from the defense budget request that President Barack Obama submitted back in February 2010.

To comment, send e-mail to milupdate@aol.com or write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111.

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