FPI Bulletin: Suggested Questions about the Defense Budget

March 17, 2016

Today, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the President’s proposed defense budget for Fiscal Year 2017. Although the Bipartisan Budget Act restored $15 billion to the Pentagon’s base budget for FY17, the top line remains far below the level considered necessary by the bipartisan National Defense Panel. FPI hopes that the following questions will prove useful to lawmakers and their staff as they seek the information necessary to evaluate the sufficiency of the defense budget.

The Risk of Declining Budgets

Last year, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the previous Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that DOD’s proposed budget of $585 billion would only provide the Department with enough funding “to remain at the lower ragged edge of manageable risk in [its] ability to execute the defense strategy.” This year, the President’s budget requests only $583 billion in total.

  • Secretary Carter, given these numbers, would you agree that the Armed Forces will remain at the “lower ragged edge of manageable risk” even if Congress grants your full request?
  • Do you believe it is acceptable to provide the Armed Forces with only enough funding to operate at the lower ragged edge of manageable risk?
  • How much additional funding would be necessary to execute the strategy at moderate risk? At low risk?
  • Gen. Dempsey also said that the amount requested last year allowed for “no slack, no margin left for error or strategic surprise.” Is that still the case today, since this year’s budget proposal actually asks for slightly less than last year’s?

Secretary Carter, you recently said that your detailed discussions with President Obama led you to identify five “evolving challenges that have driven the focus of the Defense Department's planning and budgeting this year.” Those challenges are China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and the Islamic State. Over the past year, these challengers have only escalated their provocations and attacks.

  • Secretary Carter, would you agree that the overall level of risk to our security has grown?
  • If funding remains constant while risk has grown, should one conclude that we are falling below what Gen. Dempsey described as “the lower ragged edge of manageable risk?
  • Secretary Carter, if risk has grown, shouldn’t the President’s budget have asked for the additional resources necessary to address that risk? How likely is it that you will submit a supplementary request in the coming months?

General Dunford, your Posture Statement observes that the President’s budget proposal – or PB17 – “contains fiscal risk” because it “assumes higher toplines in FY18-21.” In other words, the budget assumes that each year, from 2018 through 2021, Congress will appropriate from $20 billion to $30 billion more than allowed under current law.

  • Secretary Carter, would you support legislative action to revise the spending caps upwards so they are consistent with the projections in the President’s budget?
  • Wouldn’t the Department of Defense benefit from the certainty that it could receive the funds you say it requires?

The Relationship between Strategy and Resources

The official Defense Budget Overview observes that DOD has experienced “several years of declining defense budgets.” It adds that this decline “was driven to a substantial extent by the restrictions of the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 rather than by strategic considerations.”

  • Secretary Carter, isn’t it preferable to have budgets driven primarily by strategic considerations rather than rigid spending caps?
  • How much additional funding would this budget have requested if it prioritized strategic considerations?
  • If Congress authorized and appropriated an amount consistent with strategic considerations, over and above the current request, would you support such an outcome?

General Dunford, you recently observed that “The total FY17 topline, which is approximately $17 [billion] below what we planned in PB16, required us to defer modernization in favor of near-term readiness and force structure.” Specifically, last year’s request envisioned a base budget of $547 billion for FY17, whereas the President is now asking for only $524 billion, even though the security environment has worsened.

  • Secretary Carter, is there a strategic rationale for requesting $23 billion less than projected only one year ago? Or is there simply a political imperative to ask for what the budget deal allows?
  • If not for the budget deal, would you have asked for the full $547 billion?
  • Gen. Dunford, which aspects of modernization were deferred in order to keep the budget request at $524 billion?

Two years ago, Congress established the bipartisan National Defense Panel to conduct an independent review of the QDR. Its members included former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Fluornoy. The Panel’s unanimous report included a recommendation that the DOD base budget return to the level recommended by Secretary Gates in his final request. For the current fiscal year, Secretary Gates projected a need for $611 billion in the Pentagon base budget.

  • Secretary Carter, do you concur with the Panel’s unanimous finding on the proper size of the defense budget? Is that the level of resources you would request if you were not constrained by sequestration or the budget deal?
  • Secretary Carter, the Panel’s unanimous report also called for an end to sequestration and the repeal of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Political concerns aside, do you agree with that finding in principle?

The Size of the Armed Forces

General Dunford, your Posture Statement reports that this budget would keep the Armed Services’ end strength “consistent with the 2014 QDR forecasts. However, the emergence of ISIL and Russian revanchism has changed the strategic environment since the QDR was published.” Presumably, you meant that the actions of Russia and the Islamic State have made the environment worse, not better.

  • General Dunford, if the strategic environment has worsened, how should the Services’ end strength be adjusted?
  • How much should DOD increase the end strength of its land forces to enable an effective response to Russian revanchism? How much of an increase is necessary to deal with ISIS?
  • Is there also a need to increase the end strength of air and naval forces?
  • Since the QDR’s assessment of end strength requirements is now outdated, when will an updated assessment be available?

The RAND Corporation recently published a study entitled “Limiting Regret: Building the Army We Will Need.” In light of the growing Russian threat, the study found that the U.S. would have to deploy three armored brigades to the Baltics, along with supporting forces, to establish an effective deterrent. However, the study concluded, cuts now underway would leave the Army too small to provide such a force while shouldering its other responsibilities.

  • Secretary Carter, do you concur that the cuts now underway would leave the Army too small to provide such a force while shouldering its other responsibilities?
  • Gen. Dunford, do you assess that three armored brigades, along with their supporting forces, would serve as an effective deterrent in the Baltics?

Executing the Defense Strategy

General Dunford, your Posture Statement observes that according to the QDR, a key tenet of our defense strategy is that “If deterrence fails, the U.S. military must be capable of defeating one adversary while denying a second adversary’s objectives in a different region.” Yet the Statement also says, “The Joint Force will be stressed to execute a major contingency operation on desired plan timelines with available assets.”

  • General Dunford, do you mean to say that there is now a significant risk that the Joint Force would not be able to execute a single major contingency operation? In other words, the Force may be unprepared to execute a critical element of its strategy?
  • To what extent are the sharp budget cuts of recent years responsible for this deficient capability? If Congress wanted to mitigate this deficiency, would the authorization and appropriation of additional funds be helpful?
  • What other steps could Congress take to address this problem?

General Dunford, as you noted, our current strategy says the Joint Force should not just be capable of defeating one adversary, but of denying a second adversary’s objectives at the same time. Yet according to your Posture Statement, “Capability and capacity shortfalls would be particularly acute if the force were called to respond to a second contingency on an overlapping timeline.”

  • General Dunford, do you mean to say that we now have only a marginal ability to deny the objectives of a second adversary?
  • Which capability and capacity shortfalls would prevent the Joint Force from denying the objectives of a second adversary?
  • Would the authorization and appropriation of additional funding, above and beyond the President’s budget proposal, help to remedy this shortfall?
  • Secretary Carter, why did the President submit a budget proposal that does not provide sufficient resources to execute key elements of his own defense strategy?

Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)

The November budget deal specified a minimum level of $59 billion for OCO spending in FY16 and FY17. Secretary Carter, you recently said, “OCO is by definition a variable fund.” You added, “I would think that if we needed more [Congress would] respect that.” In fact, according to the Defense Budget Overview, you will need several billion dollars more to support the campaign against ISIS and the deterrence of Russian aggression. Yet instead of asking for additional apporpriations, you chose to cut OCO funding for other initiatives, so that the total amount requested remains exactly the same.

  • Secretary Carter, why didn’t you ask for additional funding if new requirements were identified?
  • If Congress determined that your OCO request were insufficient and appropriated additional funds, would you support such action?

According to the Defense Budget Overview, the budget request assumes that the number of troops in Afghanistan will decline from 9,800 “to approximately 5,500 troops by January 2017.” Yet more than once, the Department has had to cancel drawdowns in Afghanistan because security conditions turned out to be worse than expected.

  • Secretary Carter, if security conditions do not improve – or worsen – in the next several months, will you submit a supplemental request so that we can maintain troop levels in Afghanistan through the end of the fiscal year?
  • In light of substantial setbacks endured by Afghan forces over the past several months, why do you believe it is realistic to project a drawdown of the American troops now supporting our Afghan partners?

General John Campbell, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has recommended taking more aggressive action against the Taliban, to include “authorizing some U.S. air support for Afghan operations against the Taliban, conducting strikes against Taliban leaders and placing American advisers with conventional Afghan forces closer to the front lines.” Unnamed “senior Pentagon officials” told the Washington Post that Campbell forwarded these recommendations to the White House without the knowledge of Secretary Carter. General Campbell says that isn’t true.

  • Secretary Carter, did you review General Campbell’s recommendations before they were sent to the White House? Did you approve their transmission to the White House?
  • Can you confirm that the White House is now reviewing General Campbell’s recommendations? Do you agree with the substance of those recommendations?
  • General Dunford, would General Campbell’s recommendations reduce the likelihood of the Taliban continuing to expand their influence in Afghanistan this coming year?

Global Security Challenges


General Dunford, your Posture Statement reports that “Russia is improving its high-end warfighting capabilities and closing the gap on our competitive military advantages. Since 2008, Russia has demonstrated increasingly sophisticated military capabilities and doctrine.” At your confirmation hearing last July, you characterized Russian behavior as “nothing short of alarming.”

  • General Dunford, is it your assessment that our military advantage over Russia has narrowed over the past 12 months? What are the most important ways that the gap has narrowed over the past several years?
  • Is the Russian intervention in Syria a demonstration of Russia’s increasingly sophisticated capabilities? Specifically, which advanced capabilities did it demonstrate there?
  • Does Russia’s “alarming” behavior demonstrate that it has hostile intentions and is prepared to employ its growing military capabilities in a threatening manner?

Secretary Carter, with regard to Russian aggression, your Posture Statement observes, “we haven’t had to devote a significant portion of our defense investment to this possibility for 25 years, and while I wish it were otherwise, now we do.” You described this change as a recognition of “great power competition.”

  • Secretary Carter, in which areas must the Department of Defense make greater investments now that you have recognized the Russian threat?
  • Which programs will receive additional investment in order to account for the newly-recognized Russian threat? What is the total amount of funding that has shifted in order to achieve this objective?
  • Since we now must “devote a significant portion of our defense investment” to a threat we discounted for 25 years, would you agree that we must increase our overall level of defense spending?


General Dunford, your Posture Statement assesses that “China's rapid military modernization is quickly closing the gap with U.S. military capabilities and is eroding the Joint Force's competitive military advantages.” Last year, your predecessor, General Dempsey, testified that the time had come to “reverse the erosion of U.S. technological superiority.” Meanwhile, China’s defense budget continues to grow while ours remains significantly lower than it was five years ago.

  • Secretary Carter, do you concur with General Dunford’s assessment that China is “quickly closing the gap with U.S. military capabilities”?
  • Do you expect this gap to continue narrowing over the next 3-5 years? When will we begin to reverse this erosion, as General Dempsey recommended?
  • Will it be possible for the United States to reverse the erosion of our technological superiority if Chinese investments continue to grow more quickly than our own?

North Korea

General Dunford, your Posture Statement describes North Korea as “an immediate threat to U.S. allies in the region and an increasing threat to U.S. territories and the homeland.” Secretary Carter, you condemn Pyongyang’s “highly provocative” and destabilizing nuclear test from January and missile launch the following month. With regard to the regime’s nuclear and missile programs, you say that “DoD is fully capable of defending the U.S. homeland.”

  • General Dunford, please explain why you characterize North Korea as an “increasing threat” to U.S. territories and the homeland? Is this primarily because of the regime’s nuclear and missile programs?
  • If North Korea launched one or more nuclear-tipped missiles at the United States in the next week or month, would you say that DoD is “fully capable” of preventing any those missiles from striking their targets?


General Dunford, your Posture Statement warns of the “continued expansion of Iranian malign influence in the Middle East” and assesses that “Iran is increasingly capable of restricting U.S. military freedom of action in the region.”

  • General Dunford, do you assess that Iran is more capable than it was 12 months ago of restricting U.S. military freedom of action in the region?
  • Do you assess that Iran will be able to increase its military expenditures as a result of sanctions being lifted as part of the nuclear deal? Can you estimate the degree of this increase?
  • When you speak of the continuing expansion of malign Iranian influence, does this include an expansion of that influence in the eight months that have passed since the conclusion of the nuclear deal?

Iran currently plans to purchase Sukhoi-30 (Su-30) fighter jets from Russia, along with other weapons whose value is estimated at $8 billion.  The Su-30s are advanced jets that many consider comparable to our own F-15E. The purchase of these planes would be a flagrant violation of the arms embargo imposed last July as part of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, unless the U.S. approves an exception.

  • Secretary Carter, can you ensure this committee that the U.S. will raise the issue of the Su-30s at the Security Council? Can you assure us that the U.S. will veto any proposed exception to the embargo?
  • If Iran and Russia proceed with the sale despite American disapproval, would you support the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran?
  • General Dunford, could you please explain how the purchase of Su-30s would enhance Iran’s military capabilities? Do you assess that these planes would elevate the threat that Iran presents to Israel?

Islamic Extremism

Secretary Carter, you assert in your Posture Statement that “ISIL must and will be defeated now.” You assess that the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria are ISIL’s “center of gravity,” yet this “parent tumor” is also metastasizing across the Islamic world, from North and West Africa to Afghanistan. In the past year, we have also seen that ISIL is capable of mass casualty attacks in Europe, like the one in Paris.

  • Secretary Carter, when you say that ISIL must be defeated “now”, what timeline do you have in mind?
  • General Dunford, do you believe that ISIL is likely to lose control of either Mosul or Raqqa in 2016?
  • Will the risk of mass casualty attacks in Europe and elsewhere persist as long as ISIL has a substantial sanctuary in Iraq and Syria?
  • Secretary Carter, in light of the ongoing metastasis of ISIL in Libya and other locations, is it fair to assess that ISIL is in no way being contained?

Secretary Carter, you report that “recent operational demands like the fight against ISIL have slowed the Air Force’s return to full-spectrum readiness.” Therefore, this budget plans to spend an additional $1 billion over five years to help the Air Force recover.

  • Secretary Carter, would an intensification of the air campaign against ISIL further degrade Air Force readiness?
  • According to the Pentagon, the number of air strikes against ISIL has fallen for three consecutive months, to the lowest level since June 2015. Is this trend in any way related to the degraded readiness of the Air Force or other services?
  • If the Air Force were larger, would it be able to prosecute the campaign against ISIL without harming its full-spectrum readiness?

General Dunford, you told reporters in January, “we’re looking to take decisive military action against ISIL [in Libya] in conjunction with the political process” there. You said a decision from the White House would come within “weeks”, adding, “The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force.” Subsequent reporting suggests that the White House rejected the plan for decisive military action.

  • General Dunford, do you believe that decisive military action is necessary to address the growing threat posed by the Islamic State in Libya? What specific actions would you recommend?
  • Can you confirm that the White House rejected the proposal for such action?

Last month, the United States launched an airstrike against an Islamic State training camp in Libya where, the Pentagon said, terrorists were “planning external attacks on U.S. and other Western interests in the region.” 

  • Secretary Carter, do you believe that ISIL will continue to use its safe haven in Libya to plan attacks against U.S. and other Western interests?
  • Are there other countries, besides Syria and Libya, in which ISIL has established safe havens where it may be preparing for attacks on U.S. and other Western interests?

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