Army's top officer signals a Pentagon budget revolt

General's move follows series of cuts in service's funding requests

September 25, 2006|By Peter Spiegel | Peter Spiegel,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Army's top officer withheld a required 2008 budget plan from Pentagon leaders in August after protesting to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the service could not maintain its current level of activity in Iraq plus its other global commitments without billions in additional funding.

The decision by Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, is believed to be unprecedented and signals a widespread belief within the Army that in the absence of significant troop withdrawals from Iraq, funding assumptions must be completely reworked, said current and former Pentagon officials.

"This is unusual, but hell, we're in unusual times," said a senior Pentagon official involved in the budget discussions.

Schoomaker failed to submit the budget plan by an Aug. 15 deadline. The protest followed a series of cuts in the service's funding requests by both the White House and Congress over the past four months.

According to a senior Army official involved in budget talks, Schoomaker is seeking $138.8 billion in 2008, or nearly $25 billion above budget limits originally set by Rumsfeld. The Army's budget this year is $98.2 billion, making Schoomaker's request a 41 percent increase over current levels.

Most funding for the fighting in Iraq comes from annual emergency spending bills, with the regular defense budget going to normal personnel, procurement and operational expenses, such as salaries and new weapons systems.

About $400 billion has been appropriated for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through emergency funding measures since Sept. 11, 2001, with the money divided among various military branches and government agencies.

But in recent budget negotiations, Army officials argued that the service's expanding global role in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism - outlined in new strategic plans issued this year - as well as fast-growing personnel and equipment costs tied to the Iraq war, have put intense pressure on its normal budget.

"It's kind of like the old rancher saying: `I'm going to size the herd to the amount of hay that I have,'" said Lt. Gen. Jerry L. Sinn, the Army's top budget official. Schoomaker "can't size the herd to the size of the amount of hay that he has because he's got to maintain the herd to meet the current operating environment."

The Army, with an active-duty force of 504,000, has been stretched by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. About 400,000 soldiers have completed at least one tour of combat duty, and more than a third of those have been deployed twice. Commanders have been stepping up their complaints about the strain, saying last week that sustaining current levels will require more help from the National Guard and Reserve or an increase in the active-duty force.

Schoomaker first raised alarms with Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June after he received new Army budget outlines from Rumsfeld's office. Those outlines called for an Army budget of about $114 billion, a $2 billion cut from previous guidelines. The cuts would grow to $7 billion a year after six years.

After Schoomaker confronted Rumsfeld with the Army's own estimates for maintaining the current size and commitments - and the steps that would have to be taken to meet the lower figure, which included cutting four combat brigades and an entire division headquarters unit - Rumsfeld agreed to set up a task force to investigate Army funding.

Although no formal notification is required, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey, who has backed Schoomaker in his push for additional funding, wrote to Rumsfeld early in August to inform him that the Army would miss the Aug. 15 deadline for its budget plan. Harvey said the delay in submitting the plan, formally called a "Program Objective Memorandum," was the result of the extended review by the task force.

The study group - which included three-star officers from the Army and Rumsfeld's office - has since agreed with the Army's initial assessment. Officials said negotiations have moved up to higher levels of the Bush administration, involving top aides to Rumsfeld and Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Pressure on the Army budget has been growing since late May, when the House and Senate appropriations committees proposed defense spending cuts for 2007 of $4 billion to $9 billion below the White House's original request.

Funding was further complicated this summer, when the Pentagon was forced to shelve plans to start a gradual reduction of troops in Iraq because of an increase in sectarian violence in Baghdad.

Because of those pressures, the Army in July announced that it was freezing civilian hiring and putting a moratorium on new weapons contract awards, among other cost-cutting measures, such as personnel travel restrictions.

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