Thursday, September 28, 2023
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Hidden cost of funding for US special ops raises flags at Senate

The unit has a history of omissions, one Democrat noted, that wind up inflating its budget down the line.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Just days before the Department of Defense will unveil its spending plan for the 2024 fiscal year, Senator Elizabeth Warren told the general who heads the U.S. Special Operations Command that programs like his are “gaming the system” to squeeze extra cash out of government coffers.

Warren noted that the Special Operations Command has a history of omitting essential programs when it submits its annual budget request, only to come back with requests for extra funding in a legally mandated, supplemental list of items known as unfunded priorities.

“They take costs that should be part of the base budget request,” the Massachusetts Democrat said, “and put them on a wish list, daring Congress not to fund them, and that way they can boost their overall budget allocation.”

As an example, Warren pointed to the Special Operations Command's unfunded priorities list for the 2023 fiscal year, in which it requested around $8 million to upgrade explosive resistance capabilities at one of its armaments facilities to meet safety standards. Warren questioned why a project of that nature, designed to protect the health and safety of soldiers, was not included in the command’s full budget request.

In 2023, the Special Operations Command requested a total of around $656 million in unfunded priorities, Warren said. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in December by President Joe Biden, authorized around $250 million of that request.

“I wasn’t born yesterday,” Warren said. “I get what’s happening here.”

General Bryan Fenton — who has been in charge of the command since August — told the senator that the spending plan “will be reflective of my priorities, that are aligned with the national defense strategy.”

Fenton appeared this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee as the Biden administration and its executive agencies, including the Defense Department, are expected to publish their 2024 budget requests Thursday.

In her recent push for the agency to do away with unfunded priorities requests, Warren wrote in a Jan. 31 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that such funding avenues “have become wasteful and inefficient tools that increase spending beyond DoD’s core priorities.”

Warren in December also introduced bipartisan legislation alongside Senator Angus King, a Maine Independent, and Senator Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, that, if made law, would have repealed the law requiring federal agencies to submit unfunded priorities lists.

Several Republican members of the Senate’s military panel meanwhile expressed different concerns Tuesday.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas called it troubling that Thursday’s budget request could include “a reduction in budget or forces.”

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst echoed this, saying that she was “very concerned” about Special Operations’ top line.

Cotton forecast bipartisan support for increased Special Operations funding in the event the command’s proposed budget is slashed. “I think you can count on many members of this committee, probably in both parties, to try to make sure that our special operations forces have the resources they need," he told Christopher Maier, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

Maier declined to comment on the specifics of the agency's upcoming spending plan but told Cotton that “the priorities we have identified are represented in that budget.”

“No one wants to see a decrease in personnel or budget,” Fenton said. “No. 1, that would not reflect our requirements, and No. 2, we would be forced at some point to make hard choices. You’ll see me give you the best Special Operations Command for the budget we get.”

The U.S. Special Operations Command oversees special forces activities among the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. The command was founded by Congress as part of the 1987 National Defense Authorization Act.

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