Against Other Threats, Obama’s Security Budget Sticks to Asia-Pacific Pivot

President Barack Obama's 2016 national security budget keeps the focus on the pivot to the Asia-Pacific, while treating threats of the Islamic State and Russian aggression as short-term problems.

USS Nimitz Conducts Training Exercises
AT SEA - NOVEMBER 03: In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, an F-35C Lightening II carrier variant Joint Strike Fighter conducts it's first arrested landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) on November 3, 2014 at sea in the Pacific Ocean. Nimitz is underway conducting routine training exercises. (Photo by Kelly M. Agee/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget for national security is a reflection of the administration’s desire to hold fast to its Asia-Pacific pivot strategy even as newer threats like the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s aggression in Europe impose new spending demands on various U.S. agencies.

The Obama administration’s $4 trillion budget for 2016 includes $619 billion for a broad set of defense programs and another $54 billion for all the U.S. intelligence agencies to meet both long-term challenges and more immediate threats that have emerged in the last two years.

The State Department sought another $50.3 billion — an increase of 6 percent from last year — including $7 billion for ongoing operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, and $8.6 billion for international security assistance that pays for a range of programs including counter-narcotics, peacekeeping, and training foreign militaries.

Obama’s budget calls for raising taxes on multinational corporations and rich Americans while overhauling the country’s immigration system to boost the economy with newly legal workers. The spending proposal, which ignores caps set by law, will likely face a barrage of opposition in Congress, where there’s no consensus on how to pay for increasing costs without raising revenues.

Speaking at the Homeland Security Department’s headquarters Monday, Obama said his spending plan “recognizes that our economy flourishes when America is safe and secure.” He said it aims to support American troops, bolster U.S. borders from threats, and help confront global crises including the Islamic State and Russia’s violent overreach in Ukraine.

Underscoring the focus on Asia, Secretary of State John Kerry, in his department’s budget submission, called the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region “a top priority for every one of us in [Obama’s] administration.”

And at the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said the focus on Asia remains at the top of the military’s five main priorities for the upcoming year. At the top of the list, Work told reporters, are efforts to “continue to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. We continue to do that.”

The Obama administration said the Pentagon’s budget is driven by the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, a once-in-four-year strategy document that mostly focused American forces toward the Asia-Pacific region while aiding allies in developing defenses to deal with regional crises on their own. The strategy calls for spending heavily on long-range bombers, new fighter aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and naval vessels, as well as cybersecurity efforts.

The Pentagon’s budget includes $534.3 billion for regular Defense Department operations — an 8 percent increase over what Congress approved for 2015 — and an additional $50.9 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations that pays for ongoing wars and conflicts. That fund was reduced from the $64.2 billion Congress approved for last year, largely because of the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan.

“If your budget is a truest indicator of where your strategy is headed, then what the budget is telling us is a pivot to [the] Asia-Pacific” remains the Obama administration’s focus while “the current conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and in Ukraine are more near-term challenges” that are funded on an annual basis, said Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The budget supplement includes $1.3 billion to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian forces to fight the Islamic State, while providing few new details on how the Obama administration plans to combat the group in the years ahead. Of that amount, $700 million is for Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and another $600 million is to train and equip vetted moderate Syrian opposition fighters. In 2015, the Pentagon got $1.6 billion for these programs.

Meanwhile, the spending plan will pay to deploy 4,077 American troops to Iraq and 5,853 to Afghanistan. Programs to support the government in Baghdad include equipping Iraqi security forces and repairing existing equipment to reduce the need to buy more. An overview of the Pentagon’s budget acknowledges that Iraq’s falling oil revenues pose challenges to these goals.

“The Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior will at best realize limited funding increases over the next few years,” the Defense document says.

The State Department’s budget also provides another $3.5 billion toward countering the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and $275 million to bolster Ukraine’s fledgling government as it confronts a Russian-backed rebellion in its east. The administration has to date resisted providing the fragile pro-Western government in Kiev with weaponry and other lethal ammunition, but the New York Times reported that the White House is now seriously considering doing so.

It also outlines the goals of the Obama administration’s program in Syria: namely, to continue training and equipping vetted moderate opposition forces to reclaim territory. The document also calls anew for the Syrian opposition forces to work toward a peace agreement to end the civil war that has raged for four years. The U.S. has backed the moderate rebels’ demand for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power as a condition for peace.

The fight against the Islamic State is a boon for the U.S. Air Force, which benefits not only from the budget’s focus on longer-term threats in Asia, but also the more immediate needs. The spending plan requests $821 million in 2016 to buy 29 more MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, drones that are in high demand for their intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities as well as for their strikes on targets. This is more than was requested in either 2014 or 2015, reflecting an increased demand for the drones even as troops in Afghanistan continue to draw down.

In one indication of the Pentagon’s focus on the Asia-Pacific, the Air Force is pushing forward with its controversial proposal to retire its A-10 warplane. The debate around the aircraft has become so heated that an Air Force two-star general threatened his airmen with treason last month if they shared information about the plane with Capitol Hill, where several lawmakers oppose the plan to remove the airplane from the U.S. fleet.

The Air Force says it has to retire the plane to make room for investments in newer aircraft, like the F-35 — a radar-evading plane — which is aimed at potential threats like China. The A-10’s proponents point to the plane’s proven utility, including its use in close air support operations in Iraq against the Islamic State.

As Congress takes up Obama’s budget request, the debate over how to increase American security spending without raising taxes and revenues will play out once again as it has in the last four years, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

“What you’ll see in this Republican congress is a desire to grow security spending, but getting there is going to be very difficult” because Obama will oppose it if such an increase comes at the expense of social programs, Eaglen said.

One key indicator of whether national security spending will escape without drastic cuts will come if the Republican-controlled Congress decides to temporarily lift budget caps imposed in 2011. Congress has previously relaxed the limits, in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Without such an easing of the spending limits, debate over the appropriate level of defense spending is likely to become acrimonious, Eaglen said.

Obama’s security budget ignores the congressionally mandated budget caps — known as sequestration — that will remain in place for 2016 unless Congress passes legislation to lift them. Under sequestration, the Pentagon’s base budget is capped at $499 billion. The Pentagon’s request comes in $35 billion over the cap.

“Funding levels lower than the president is proposing, especially at full sequestration cap levels, our defense strategy will become brittle and more prone to breaking,” Work told reporters at the Pentagon Monday.

The war funding budget also includes a healthy dose of classified spending: $3.5 billion for Defense Department programs, and another $5 billion for non-defense activities.

U.S. Navy Images/Getty

 Twitter: @g_ratnam
Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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