How the U.S. Military Can Recover from Trump Budget Trauma

How the U.S. Military Can Recover from Trump Budget Trauma

Congress should move swiftly to recover every lost dollar diverted by President Donald Trump from defense for the border as soon as possible.

What exactly does it mean in practice for the troops that more than one-third of defense infrastructure is classified as being in “poor” or altogether “failing” condition?  

“At Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, the [National] Commission [on Military Aviation Safety] entered a hangar by passing under steel letters that were falling off the wall above the hanger’s doors. Broken doors forced Sailors to use aircraft tugs to pull the massive doors open and closed, one time accidentally hitting an F/A-18 and causing substantial damage.” 

It gets worse. 

“Commissioners stepped around buckled drain gratings marked in yellow as a warning to keep aircraft away. The fire suppression system was inoperable, and only two of 8 bays had working power for aircraft maintenance.” 

Unsurprisingly but quite unfortunately, the commission “found similarly unsatisfactory conditions at numerous installations across the Services.” As a Navy senior executive told the Commission,  “I’ve toured two naval aviation depot maintenance facilities; both are maintaining fifth-generation fighters with advance avionics in pre-first generation—I’m talking World War II—aviation maintenance facilities.” 

What does it mean for the flight line mechanic to operate in hangars and depots built in the 1940s? Again, the Commission: “Poor facilities and a lack of equipment delay maintenance. When only two of 8 hanger bays can be used to power an aircraft during maintenance, maintainers must spend hours moving aircraft from one bay to the next.” One Marine aircraft wing commander estimated his maintainers put in 1,000 miles of towing per year, “and we tell them not to have a tow accident.” 

The GAO has previously found that outdated facilities have “electrical systems built for different weapon systems, historical preservation requirements, and suboptimal layouts. It can be difficult for a depot to maintain complex, modern weapon systems, such as the F/A-18, with facilities that were designed for less complex systems.”  

That’s why it was particularly egregious when the last administration repeatedly misused defense dollars for immigration purposes—thwarting the will of Congress. Not only was this reprogramming of military construction dollars an abuse of funds, the gambit increases the prospects future presidents will dramatically expand the definition of “national emergency” to justify such action again—except next time it will not be the southern border wall but possibly climate change, gun control, or anything.  

The Pentagon bill for postponed facilities maintenance and modernization is already over $100 billion and growing. Military construction is an important, yet easily overlooked, aspect of the defense budget. Ironically, in 2018, the White House budget office lamented that this is a “critical area” that remains underfunded. Ya think? 

Congressionally-appropriated money should only be used for authorized activities. Using the military as cover to pilfer funds for a priority that hasn’t been approved in Congress means politicians can’t, or won’t, do the hard work to cut a deal with the other party. This lack of bipartisanship literally seeps into the floors of military depots across the country, and those in uniform have to suffer the consequences.  

Military infrastructure has been under strain for two decades as money was repeatedly deferred for the wars. Then later for the border wall. Some buildings and projects are in such shoddy condition that officials have admitted they are not worth salvaging.  

Siphoning defense dollars based on an executive action also poses problems for congressional oversight. This sudden reprogramming sets “a dangerous precedent of abuse of laws by the executive branch to circumvent constitutional checks and balances. It also increases the likelihood of more stringent restrictions on an even smaller pot of flexible defense money going forward.” 

Fortunately, Congress is pushing to get those needed military construction funds rerouted back to their intended purposes. So far, $922 million has been spent on the border wall. However, as of last month, there were 16 Pentagon projects for which funding has not been restored. 

Recklessly reprogramming funds exacerbates uncertainty—an unhelpful addition when dealing with real estate assets, infrastructure and inventory. Sudden diversions of funds away from construction projects has deleterious effects on local economies that are already struggling because of the pandemic. Worse, it hurts those in uniform working twelve-hour days in substandard facilities to keep planes working, pilots flying and missions met. Congress should move swiftly to recover every lost dollar diverted by President Donald Trump from defense for the border as soon as possible.  

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow her on Twitter: @MEaglen.

Image: Reuters.