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This week senior officials from the Pentagon will testify before Congress on their request for emergency appropriations, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations funding (OCO in military speak). A decision to maintain troop presence in Afghanistan, a resurgence of radical Sunni terrorism across the Middle East, and Russian expansionism in Europe all seem like good reasons for the administration to request the emergency funding. These events, however, haven’t prevented some proponents of defense cuts to question the validity of the request.
To be sure, the OCO request for the Defense Department is $58.6 billion—a substantial sum of money. Yet, it is 31 percent less than last year’s war funding bill reflecting the substantial reduction in U.S. forces planned for the next two years. This sharp decline in war funding hasn’t mollified critics who argue the request is too high because the funding doesn’t keep pace with troop levels, which will drop by 56 percent between this fiscal year and the next. This has led some to conclude that the OCO request is funded beyond what is strictly necessary for Afghanistan and related operations.
This argument is specious. To start, the baseline numbers aren’t equal. If you put aside the new counterterrorism fund ($4B) and the emergency fund for Europe to counter Russian aggression ($1B)—both first time requests and unrelated to Afghanistan—then the OCO request is actually 36 percent less than what was enacted for this year. So, the difference between percentage decline in troop levels and the percentage decline in OCO funding is 20 percent.
There are a number of reasons that explain the 20 percent difference.
Foremost, the need to reset the force after 13 years of conflict. Few want to admit that the OCO has historically been underfunded. In the past, the OCO has not prioritized the reset of equipment. Simply paying the operations and maintenance costs of the deployed troops was all the executive branch could afford or was willing to ask of Congress. With sequestration caps staying in place for the foreseeable future the OCO is the only account that can replace the platforms chewed up in wartime operations. This explains why procurement funding in the OCO is roughly the same as last year—there is a huge reset bill that will take years to pay. Contrary to noise out there the procurement funding makes up less than ten percent of the total request. The OCO request is hardly outfitting new brigades, squadrons or fleets with these funds.
This leads to a more basic point about the dual purpose of OCO: to fund the current fight and to replace the equipment lost in the fight. Congress should scrutinize the requests, but as long as there is a nexus to reset it is legitimate to be included in the OCO request. So when some criticize the OCO for funding programs that do not feature strongly in the military’s vision of the future, but concede their importance to the war in Afghanistan, they implicitly acknowledges that the OCO request is tied to real war-time needs and not funding priorities that otherwise belong in the peace time budget. In other words, the war funding request is playing by the rules.
Another cost driver unique to this year’s war funding measure is the bill for redeploying. Military leaders have consistently testified that redeploying forces, retrograde of equipment and closing facilities and bases in Afghanistan is a costly endeavor. So, redeployment costs inevitably drive up the ratio of OCO dollars per soldier. Congress should also keep in mind that some costs of keeping forces in theater are fixed and apply whether the force is sixty thousand or ten thousand. So as forces go down, not all war costs realize a commensurate decline.
Finally, making this a discussion of only numbers really misses the point. Should it matter that the decline in OCO funding isn't steep enough? In an environment where almost every senior military leader is blue in the face warning of the significant risk to our security posed by sequestration's budget caps it seems entirely appropriate to use the OCO to mitigate that risk. Waiving the banner of budget purity and pointing to the peacetime budget as the more appropriate funding mechanism to address shortfalls smacks of rigid budget ideology blind to reality.
The Pentagon has rightfully seized the war funding to fix what it can of a military budget riddled with risk and funding gaps. Congress ought to fund it in full.