For sheer chutzpah, it’s hard to beat the reprogramming request the Pentagon sent to Capitol Hill this week. This reprogramming seeks to transfer $1.9 billion in previously approved Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) cash to programs different than those the Congress originally approved. Reprogramming funding is not unheard of - typically these requests transfer money to accounts like fuel, travel expenses, or wartime “expendables” like ammunition that is being used at a faster rate than originally anticipated.
With this request, however, the Pentagon is asking to transfer $1.3 billion from Army and Pentagon-wide Operations and Maintenance accounts to build more F-35s than originally requested for both the Marine Corps and the Air Force. Just to be clear, F-35s cannot be used in combat today, or tomorrow. How can they replace combat aircraft? How are they at all a part of overseas “contingencies”?
For the Marine Corps, the Pentagon is asking Congress to let them shift $880 million for 6 more F-35s and the initial spare parts that come with new airframes. The justification is listed as follows: “Funds are required to procure six…aircraft to replace the six AV-8Bs destroyed at Forward Operating Base Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in September 2012.”
For the Air Force the request is $430 million for two additional F-35s and initial spares. The accompanying justification is: “Funds are required to procure two F-35 aircraft to replace two F-15 aircraft lost in combat in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) during 2012-2013.”
Let’s close our eyes to the fact that replacements for aircraft losses in 2012 could have been reflected in the Pentagon’s FY14 budget request. Let’s focus on the unbelievable gall that the Pentagon believes they can argue purchasing eight additional aircraft that are not yet operational could possibly be an appropriate use of OCO funds. Because if OCO is really supposed to “meet operational requirements in support of contingency operations” then F-35s in no way meet that threshold. First, they aren’t operational. Second, in FY14 (which ends on September 30th) they won’t be used in support of any overseas operation.
This just proves our long-held contention at TCS that OCO has become a slush fund for the Pentagon. The original reason for the OCO transfer account, conceived back in FY97, was “to meet operational requirements in support of contingency operations without disrupting approved program execution or force readiness.” This original justification has been stretched to the breaking point. But let’s agree that overseas operations such as those to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the actions of the Islamic State, set out by the President this week, are exactly the kind of unexpected or “contingency” operations that OCO was specifically developed to handle. And most people can probably agree that the FY14 OCO account of $85.2 billion is sufficient to meet that mission and many, many others. (Consider, for instance, that if OCO was its own agency in FY14, it would have the second largest budget, after the Pentagon that is.) In fact, the extension of FY14 OCO funding levels under a potential continuing resolution is more than the Pentagon asked for starting October 1st.
OCO has become little more than an off-budget safety valve to keep the Pentagon from meeting the modest caps imposed by the Bi-partisan Budget Act. In this case it would enable the Pentagon to slip a few costly F-35s onto the OCO tab and reduce the perceived cost of the entire overblown program. Let’s face it, the Pentagon should be able to live within its nearly half a trillion dollar budget every year without resorting to spending the additional $85 billion “rainy day fund” they have convinced Congress they need.
The Congress should reject the Pentagon’s transparent attempt to make an end-run around the normal procurement process. Tell the Pentagon to put together a realistic aircraft procurement request for FY16. And don’t let them try to hijack the OCO process.
It’s time to recognize that OCO doesn’t stand for “Oh, come on!”