The Complex

Key Hill Dem to Pentagon Leaders: I Don't Trust You

Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike are worried that the Pentagon is taking a fund that's historically been used to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and using it to cover just about any unforeseen crisis that may happen next year.

Of the Pentagon's $59 billion supplemental war-spending bill for 2015, $53 billion will go toward operations in Afghanistan. For the most part, this part of the spending request is relatively uncontroversial on Capitol Hill.

It's the remaining $6 billion included in the Pentagon's request that had members of the House Armed Services Committee concerned on Wednesday, July 16.

And though the criticism came from both parties, the harshest words came from the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington.

"If you wanted to use this money to refuel an aircraft carrier, there is nothing in this language to stop you from doing that," Smith told a panel that included Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. James Winnefeld, and Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord.

Smith and others wanted to know more about two new presidential initiatives: the $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund and the $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative.

Within the counterterrorism fund is $1 billion for the "Syria Regional Stabilization Initiative," which includes $500 million to train and equip vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition.

President Barack Obama announced the new counterterrorism fund as part of his May 28 West Point speech, explaining that the money "will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya, and facilitating French operations in Mali."

The White House's request for the $1 billion in new spending in Europe came in June following the crisis in Ukraine.

Now it's time for Congress to turn the administration's request into legislation, and it's clear that some lawmakers want to place restrictions on the money before any measure is passed in the House or the Senate.

"I'm telling you, this is really, really poorly drafted in terms of narrowing it down to specifics of the purpose," Smith said Wednesday. "I'll just say A) this has got to be fixed and B) it's really not good that it came to us in this form in the first place."

Put more bluntly, Smith asked the Pentagon officials whether there was anything that would keep the Defense Department from using the money for other things.

McCord responded by saying that this was not the Pentagon's "intent or design."

To which Smith shot back, "Your intent and your design are, I'm sorry, irrelevant to this conversation."

Part of the concern is that the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account exists outside today's discretionary spending caps and therefore provides a tempting place to which to move projects in order to protect the Defense Department from having to cut its own base budget too deeply.

Winnefeld argued that sequestration, combined with unanticipated operations, like earthquake relief in Japan and the deployment of a Patriot battery in Turkey, are badly squeezing the individual services' budgets.

For him, OCO funding should be spent on "anything that we do while we're deployed or that supports our deployments that is over and above what we would normally do in a tabula-rasa, peaceful world, where we're just maintaining a deterrent presence."

The Stimson Center's Russell Rumbaugh said he thought Winnefeld offered a very robust defense of what Rumbaugh calls the "retainer model," where the Pentagon's $500 billion base budget covers the costs of just having a Defense Department, but if it's required to go out and do anything, it needs to be paid more.

Winnefeld's comments stir up a debate about when supplemental spending should be used for military operations, Rumbaugh said. "It's absolutely unclear what the future of OCO is, and there is some jostling about the positioning of it."

The Obama administration is also asking for maximum flexibility to be able to move the counterterrorism money around to where it's needed. The White House and the Pentagon argue that they need this so that they can respond as quickly as possible when unforeseen threats flare up around the world.

"We do not consider this a slush fund. We want to work with Congress to provide us flexibility and authorities that we already have to respond to a very fast-moving situation," Work said.

Many lawmakers, by contrast, believe that's exactly what it is.

"This seems like a lot of leeway that really hampers Congress's oversight mission. It seems this is becoming another slush fund," said Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Budget experts have also pointed out that the Pentagon already has other funds and authorities available to conduct similar counterterrorism activities.

For example, there's the "1206" fund "to train and equip foreign military forces for two specified purposes -- counterterrorism and stability operations -- and foreign security forces for counterterrorism operations," according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

And it has the "1208" fund. Authorized in 2005 by Congress, it "provides authority and funds for U.S. [special operations forces] to train and equip regular and irregular indigenous forces to conduct counterterrorism operations," according to the CRS.

Many lawmakers said they didn't understand why the Defense Department wanted new funding when those programs are already in place.

In addition to these broader concerns, Republicans and Democrats alike said they don't want to be left in the dark on these counterterrorism efforts, especially the White House's plan for Syria.

It's not just about waste or redundancy, said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio). "We want to know what you're going to do, because we're concerned about the outcomes."

Smith said he thinks the decision to train and arm vetted members of the Syrian opposition is the right one, and even long overdue. But the congressman said he's troubled by how the White House has made its case for the funding on Capitol Hill.

"It hasn't been well explained," he said at Wednesday's hearing. "We need to do better than: 'It's classified, so we can't talk about it.'"

Winnefeld said the administration had solid reasons for asking for the new Syria money. Heavily armed militants from the Islamic State and the Nusra Front are able to move freely now in parts of Syria and Iraq and pose a direct and growing threat to both the region and U.S. interests around the world.

As for how the money will be spent, Winnefeld said he's unable to offer many specifics outside a classified hearing.

Smith said he understands the need for secrecy, but urged the officials to be straightforward and explain that the money is intended for training and equipping the moderate rebels.

"I'm painfully aware that there's a lot going on in the world, but if the White House is going to push a policy like this, then they've got to frickin' push the policy. They can't just not say anything to us forever," Smith said. "For the U.S. Congress to vote to authorize a train-and-equip mission for a rebel force is a big damn deal."

Photo via AFP

The Complex

Israel's Iron Dome Gets New Funding as Gaza Fight Intensifies

This story has been corrected. 

Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system has kept the country safe from the hundreds of Hamas rockets flying toward its major cities from the Gaza Strip. With fighting intensifying, Congress seems poised to give Israel and one of the United States' largest defense contractors a jolt of good news: $175 million in new American aid that will help fund an expansion of the program.

The additional money for Iron Dome cleared one of its final hurdles Tuesday, when a key Senate appropriations subcommittee unanimously voted to double the Pentagon's $175 million request for fiscal year 2015. The full committee will consider the defense appropriations bill on Thursday. Meanwhile, three other panels have already signed off on the funding expansion, making it all but certain the additional money will be provided. Iron Dome has received $720 million in American funding since 2011, when the United States became directly involved in the program.

Iron Dome, which is built by the Israeli defense company Rafael, has kept Israeli casualties so low that it's credited with bolstering the public's support for a longer bombing campaign rather than an immediate ground invasion into Gaza. If Hamas rockets had managed to strike major Israeli population centers, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have had little choice but to send troops into Gaza on a high-risk mission to find and destroy the militant group's rocket launchers.

Instead, Israel is reporting that Iron Dome has had a 90 percent success rate, though it has only been used against 27 percent of the Hamas rockets. Because of the high cost of each interceptor -- which the Washington Post pegs at roughly $20,000 a piece -- Israel only uses the system when its radars indicate that a rocket seems likely to hit a populated area. The Hamas rockets are thought to cost less than $800 each.

With the conflict intensifying, a Hamas mortar shell fired from Gaza Tuesday caused the first Israeli death since the eight-day military confrontation began.* Israeli airstrikes on targets in Gaza, by contrast, have killed close to 200 Palestinians.  

While some missile defense experts say the success of Iron Dome has been overhyped, the system is frequently celebrated in both Israel and the United States for saving civilian lives. At a Pentagon press briefing in 2012, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak presented then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with a mini-Iron Dome model. Panetta responded by giving Barak a photograph of the two of them visiting an Iron Dome site in Israel.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties have long been eager to show their support for the program, which they see as a cost-effective way of developing state-of-the-art technologies that the Pentagon can use to improve its own missile defense capabilities. With U.S. contributions to the Iron Dome program set to reach nearly $1 billion, however, lawmakers have also made clear that they want more Iron Dome production work to move to the United States to create jobs for Americans and generate new revenues for American firms.

Defense giant Raytheon stands to be the biggest beneficiary, with the Massachusetts-based company signing on as a subcontractor with Rafael.

In March, the United States and Israel signed an Iron Dome agreement that hammered out many of the key details surrounding the new Rafael-Raytheon partnership.

The deal paved the way for 30 percent of Iron Dome production to take place in the United States in 2014 and 55 percent in 2015. Before the March 5 agreement, only 3 percent of U.S. funding on Iron Dome was spent on components bought in the United States, according to a report the Pentagon provided to Congress in April.

Still, some questions remain, particularly about how much starting Iron Dome production in the United States will add to the costs or delay the delivery schedule.

The Pentagon addressed some of those concerns in April, when it sent a report to Congress asserting that Raytheon and Rafael have worked together "to ensure that Raytheon's costs did not exceed Rafael's costs by more than five percent on any particular component." Anything that exceeds this threshold will continue to be bought from Rafael at a lower cost, the report said.

For 2015, the Pentagon requested $175 million for Iron Dome, but the Israeli government went to Capitol Hill this spring and asked Congress to double that amount.

"The reason for this is the impact of the cost of the transfer of production to the U.S., which was not part of the original proposed budget," an Israeli Embassy official told Foreign Policy Monday.

According to a person familiar with the matter, Israel's request came as a bit of a surprise since it came after the March agreement and was done without giving the U.S. Missile Defense Agency a heads up.

Israel's argument that more money was needed due to coproduction costs was met with some skepticism because there is little hard data available yet about how U.S. production may increase costs, the official said.

In their versions of the 2015 defense spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee have all indicated they'll provide Iron Dome the extra $175 million, but in the reports that accompany the committees' legislation are a long list of questions for the Israelis about how they plan to spend the money.

The House committees have said the money can't be spent until Israel provides the Missile Defense Agency with the information and its director signs off on it. A congressional source said Israel should be able to provide the requested information without a problem.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense -- the last committee to weigh in -- also agreed to double next year's $175 million request, essentially guaranteeing the funding boost.

Correction, July 16, 2014: The first Israeli fatality since its current conflict with Hamas began just over a week ago came from a mortar shell. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it came from a rocket attack. (Return to reading.)

David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images