Pentagon Officials See Problems With Services’ Wish Lists

By Jon Harper
Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord, Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Jamie Morin, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities Robert Scher, speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Mar. 7.

As Congress takes up the Pentagon’s latest budget request, officials from the office of the secretary of defense on March 7 voiced concerns about the military services’ unfunded priorities lists. 

Each year service leaders provide lawmakers with a wish list of items they would like to buy if they were given additional funding beyond what was included in the president’s budget. Congressional appropriators can use the lists when making decisions about whether to provide more money to the Defense Department or to add or subtract funding for individual programs.

The fiscal year 2017 wish lists have not yet been publicly released, but Politico published the documents last week after they were leaked to the media.

“It’s disappointing that these lists get out so soon before the secretary has had time to review them,” Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said during a panel discussion about the defense budget at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Army list includes $7.5 billion in unfunded items, while the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps’ lists total $4.9 billion, $2.9 billion and $2.7 billion, respectively. The Navy would like to buy 14 more F-18 Super Hornets at a cost of $1.5 billion, and the Air Force would like to procure five additional F-35 joint strike fighters for $691 million, according to Politico.

Such lists can potentially be useful, McCord said. But providing money for currently unfunded priorities could be problematic this year in light of the current budget agreement.

“They do have some value in the process in illuminating … at the margins where additional pressure might be or is perceived to be within the services,” he said. “The problem in this particular instance is … there’s an agreed to topline.”

For example, “if there was something that you pick off the Navy list [and fund], it would have to be at the expense of somebody else,” he said.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Policy Robert Scher described funding allocation in the current fiscal environment as a “zero sum game.” Shifting money around between the services or individual programs would undermine the work that the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s office has been doing to try to balance needs across the total force, he said. 

“That’s what we spend a number of months doing. [It] is trying to look at allocating risk across the portfolio in the best way that the secretary thinks, and so then changing one-off decisions really does change that whole risk calculation and balance,” he said.

McCord said the unfunded priorities lists would be “less helpful” this year absent an unexpected change in the budget situation.

Carter is awaiting recommendations about the wish lists from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, according to Jamie Morin, director of cost assessment and program evaluation at the Defense Department.

Photo: Jon Harper

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership

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