U.S. 2015 war-funding request due to go to Congress soon: official

WASHINGTON Tue Jun 24, 2014 8:44pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon's top financial officer said on Tuesday the Obama administration would "quite soon" send Congress its 2015 funding request for Afghanistan and other overseas conflicts, but he added it was unlikely to include money for operations in Iraq.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, who will step down in the coming days after more than five years in office, said until President Barack Obama decides whether to take additional steps in Iraq, it is premature to try to present Congress with a funding request.

Obama is sending some 300 military advisers to Baghdad to assess the state of Iraqi security forces and determine how the United States can help them counter an offensive led by Islamist insurgents who have overrun the country in recent weeks. The Pentagon said the first advisers were deployed on Tuesday.

Hale told Reuters in an interview the Pentagon would be better able to estimate the costs of any assistance to Iraq once Obama had heard back from the advisers and decided whether to pursue further action, such as air strikes.

Hale, the longest-serving Pentagon budget chief since the 1950s, announced his intent to step down in January. The Senate recently confirmed his deputy, Michael McCord, to succeed him, and the switch is expected to take place soon.

His time in office has been a turbulent period for Pentagon spending.

The department's budget was about $700 billion at the start of the Obama administration as it grappled with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Congress and the White House in 2011 ordered nearly a trillion dollars in cuts to projected spending over a decade.

Across-the-board reductions went into effect nearly halfway through the fiscal year last year, forcing the department to put civilian personnel on unpaid leave and make other spending reductions that hurt military readiness.

The administration has asked for a base budget of $496 billion for the 2015 fiscal year beginning in October. Its request to Congress included a placeholder figure of $79 billion for the Afghanistan war, but it was expected to ask for less in the budget request that Hale said could come "quite soon."

A compromise between Republicans and Democrats kept spending flat this year and next. But barring a new accord, the Pentagon faces a return to deep cuts in 2016, forcing it to further slash the size of the Army and Marines and retire more weapons. [ID:nL2N0P522R]

Hale said there was little sign of a new budget deal.

"Nothing's going to happen until after the election and, I suspect, until we get close to the debt ceiling next year," he said. "If there's going to be an action-forcing event, I would expect it would be the debt ceiling again."

The comptroller said he knew when taking office that the historical "roller-coaster" pattern of defense spending made it likely the department would face a drawdown as the wars ended, but he was caught by surprise at the timing.

"All of us that have watched that pattern knew it was coming," he said. "What we didn’t know is when. The past patterns have been the drawdowns started after the wars ended. This one started before, but then of course we’ve never had a war that lasted 13 years."

Hale said the present drawdown in defense spending was shaping up to be similar in size to past drawdowns. Analysts have said previous drawdowns have seen drops in Pentagon spending of 20 percent or more.

But the budget chief said crises like the ones in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, should they worsen, could prompt Congress to reverse course and increase defense spending.

"The budget, if you ask me what it's going to look like five years out, I would say it's probably going to be determined by events that haven't happened yet," he said. "The president will ask for, and Congress will appropriate, the money to provide a reasonable level of defense ... in the light of world events."

(Reporting by David Alexander and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Eric Beech)

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