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Military leaders say budget stopgaps affecting readiness

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis shakes hands with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, before a hearing on the fiscal 2018 defense budget authorization request on June 13 in Washington D.C. (Photo/Army Sgt. Amber Smith for the Defense Department)

Military leaders worry that the way Congress is keeping the federal government funded, using continuing resolutions instead of passing an appropriations bill, is having an adverse effect on the military readiness of the United States.

In the absence of a new budget, a continuing resolution funds the government for a set period of time at the same level or slightly lower than a previous appropriations bill. The most recent continuing resolution, passed in early September, funds the federal government through Dec. 8 with a 0.68% reduction in 2017 spending levels.

A budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2016, for the federal government, was not passed until May, after three separate continuing resolutions.

“Long-term CRs (continuing resolutions) impact the readiness of our forces and the equipment at a time when security threats are extraordinarily high,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. “The longer the CR, the greater the consequences for our force.”

Col. Christopher Karns, a spokesman for the Air Force, said continuing resolutions are a “Band-Aid budget” that affect the military’s readiness.

“An unpredictable budget and basically long-term continuing resolutions can impact number of flying hours, it can ... reduce reserve component activation for overseas operations,” he said. “It can impact the ability to modernize the force, to fix facilities. Those are all elements that could potentially impact Charleston when you have a Band-Aid effect for something that requires a more permanent, predictable solution.”

Karns is the director of public affairs for Air Mobility Command, which provides airlift and aerial refueling operations for the entire military. Joint Base Charleston’s 437th Airlift Wing and 628th Air Base Wing belong to Air Mobility Command, and Karns said 33% of the command’s missions are flown out of Charleston.

“With a predictable budget, you’re able to ensure the readiness training, the equip piece that is so critically important when you have a nation that has been in that war footing for 16-plus years,” he said. “We’re too small for the missions that our nation demands of us.”

Karns said continuing resolutions don’t allow the military to start new programs, increase the rate of production or begin new construction.

“Continuing resolutions make doing business very, very difficult,” he said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (pictured) testified during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Oct. 3 on Capitol Hill alongside Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the political and security situation in Afghanistan. Photo/Army Sgt. James McCann for the Defense Department)

In his letter to McCain and Reed, Mattis said September’s continuing resolution affects 37 Navy projects, 16 Air Force projects and 38 Army projects.

He added that one of the biggest obstacles to military readiness is the Budget Control Act of 2011, which imposed forced budget cuts if Congress is unable to produce a deficit reduction bill. The cuts, often referred to as sequestration, took effect in March 2013.

Sequestration cuts defense spending by approximately $55 billion annually, with an estimated $492 billion in total cuts from 2013 to 2021, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“In the long term, it is the budget caps ... that impose the greater threat to the department and to national security,” Mattis said, adding that funding only to the level allowed by the Budget Control Act “reverses the gains we have made in readiness, and undermines our efforts to increase lethality and grow the force.”

Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, promised to increase defense spending and end the forced budget cuts when Congress passes a budget in December.

“Sequestration needs to come to an end,” he said in October during a speech aboard the USS Yorktown. “Right now, we’re spending a little over 3% of GDP on defense. Historically, it’s been close to 5% of GDP.”

Graham said that he’s spoken to President Donald Trump about the issue and that the president is also committed to increasing military strength.

Karns said if the plan is to expand the military, “you need that airlift capability” to carry supplies and personnel.

“Our old C-17s are pushing 25 years of age,” Karns said. “So that need to sustain and modernize and the investment component for what mobility and airlift that’s performed out of here (Charleston) is critically important to our nation’s success.”

Karns agreed with Graham that the military needs a financial boost.

“Other nations, other potential adversaries are continuing to test and develop military capability,” he said. “To ensure that we have a budget in place to continue to outpace and have a technological advantage is critically important.”

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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