WASHINGTON — Sending military aid to Ukraine has been one of the Defense Department’s highest profile focuses for more than a year, but defense officials left it out of the Pentagon’s new budget request and say the plan is to continue to seek emergency funding from Congress.
The notable exclusion of politically sensitive Ukraine contingency funding from the budget request suggests the Pentagon may be seeking to insulate its core programs against Capitol Hill cross-currents. House Republicans are divided on Ukraine aid, and some have also made an ambitious promise to slash discretionary spending by at least $130 billion even as they seek to grow the overall defense budget.
But excluding Ukraine aid from the $842 billion in Pentagon spending the Biden administration has requested for fiscal 2024 puts the onus on Congress — if it wants to continue to help Kyiv — to pass billions of dollars more in supplemental appropriations.
Pentagon budget officials attributed the decision to rely on supplementals to the uncertain nature of the war.
“Ukraine support above the pre-conflict levels is not in this budget; the situation remains too fluid,” Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord told reporters at Monday’s budget rollout. “The way we’re handling this is the way we’ve handled every emerging situation in the last few years, and that’s supplementals.”
The Republican divide over whether to continue aid to Kyiv ― and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s vow not to grant Ukraine a “blank check” ― has prompted House GOP leaders to spotlight the extensive oversight on Ukraine aid and that U.S. weapons have not been diverted from their intended use.
But even some Democrats supportive of the aid have have begun to question the Biden administration’s reliance on extra-budgetary means. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., for instance, told Defense News he would rather include Ukraine aid as part of the defense budget.
“My personal preference would be to bake it into the base budget,” Whitehouse said. “That sends a very positive signal to Ukraine. But there are a lot of players in this world who have a voice on that. And I’m very comfortable following the lead of my colleagues on the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee as to what they think the best way to go would be.”
At a defense appropriations subcommittee hearing last month, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said the Biden administration needs to “do a better job of messaging on this long-term, especially over the next two years,” while Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, called on the Pentagon at the same hearing to “be totally honest with everybody about what this is all going to cost.”
“People need to know what this will cost and people need to consider how to fund it,” Case said. “We have colleagues that are good representatives of their constituents who want to increase, who want to decrease, who want to borrow more, who want to borrow less and we just need to know what it takes realistically to get through the assumption … that this war is going to continue.”
Emergency spending for the Pentagon is not new, but it grew increasingly controversial in the final years of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Funds were appropriated through Overseas Contingency Operations spending packages outside the base budget, which some lawmakers likened to a “budget gimmick.”
According to the Congressional Budget Office, emergency funds made up 2% of the Pentagon’s budget between 1970 and 2000, but grew after Sept. 11, 2001 and peaked at 28% in 2007 and 2008. Overseas Contingency Operations spending averaged about $119 billion per year before President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget request eliminated it.
Though the Biden administration has doubled down on using emergency Ukraine spending rather than starting to integrate it into the regular budget process, as recently as last month a senior Pentagon official testified that the Biden administration had started work on placing Ukraine assistance within the base budget.
“There is work ongoing to build it into a base budget, and we are not ruling out coming back to you for a supplemental,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander told the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel on Feb. 28.
But on Monday, McCord said the Pentagon would rely on emergency supplementals. Though his office has not put together additional supplemental spending requests for fiscal 2023 or fiscal 2024, he said, the Pentagon was able to quickly draft four supplementals in 12 months.
“The spring offensives are not far along enough for us to draw any conclusions on that,” McCord said. “We can do them quickly, especially if we do them in short windows, but we’re not trying to prognosticate a whole year in advance.”
McCord noted some proposed funds that had gone into the base budget’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative would now go into the European Deterrence Initiative — for which the Biden administration has requested nearly $5 billion in FY24.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget announced last week it was only seeking $6 billion in Ukraine aid as part of its FY24 base budget, an amount roughly on par with funding for Kyiv before Russia’s invasion last year.
That $6 billion is also a small fraction of the $113 billion in military and economic aid for Ukraine that Congress passed last year via four emergency supplemental packages.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.