Congress must solve one military installation problem at a time

In late August, the United States Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis published a new report, “The Case for Climate Action: Building a Clean Economy for the American People.” As part of its mandate, the committee investigates “how inaction on the climate crisis is harming the economic and national security interests of the US.” Without a doubt, these issues merit investigation. However, the national security recommendations of the committee’s latest report must be tempered by the current fiscal realities facing the Department of Defense.

Within a chapter on military readiness, the committee identifies risks that climate change poses to military installations. The committee cites a GAO report that found DoD installations did not consistently assess risks from extreme weather and climate change, in part, as the committee paraphrased, “because they lack guidance on how to incorporate [future climate condition] projections into their master plans.” While recognizing that progress has been made, the committee still concludes that the Department of Defense “must do more.”

However, more comprehensive risk assessments will be of little help if the Pentagon is unable to address its existing bill for postponed facilities maintenance and modernization. This bill was already over $100 billion in 2018 — and it’s hard to fill that hole. 

The Pentagon logo is seen behind the podium in the briefing room at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Al Drago

As AEI’s Mackenzie Eaglen has pointed out, while the defense budget is massive, dollars for military facilities actually come from a much smaller pot of money within that topline: the Military Construction account. This account has been chronically underfunded since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started.

Despite the Trump administration’s promise to repair and rebuild the US military, it has also been shockingly willing to divert military construction project dollars to build the southern border wall instead. Last year, the administration halted 127 military construction projects for this purpose, costing a total of $3.6 billion.

Further, base money for facility repair and maintenance mostly comes from the Facilities Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization (FSRM) program: sub-accounts within the sizeable Operations & Maintenance budget. The FSRM program is also consistently short-changed. In general, 90 percent of the facilities’ sustainment requirement should be funded each year, but that benchmark is rarely met. For example, the DoD’s 2021 budget request only funds 83 percent of these requirements — down four percent from 2020.

Today, as the country reels from the massive healthcare crisis of COVID-19 and its economic ramifications, Democrats in the House and Senate are calling for the DoD to help pay the bill. Suggesting that Americans should choose between their domestic safety and national security is a false choice already, but it is also worth considering the juxtaposition of these two proposed initiatives: Military installations must be protected from the consequences of climate change, but the defense budget must be cut.

It is fair to ask the Department of
Defense to secure installations around the world, use taxpayer dollars
responsibly, and remain appraised of future threats. However, the Pentagon must
receive the financial support it requires to carry out the demands of Congress.

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