In the News

While the president’s former attorney Michael Cohen made headlines testifying before Congress Wednesday, a few senior defense officials were grilled in the same building at another Congressional hearing on military issues that could affect San Diego County.

A House Appropriations subcommittee called a hearing on the impact that President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall project may have on military readiness, now that he has declared a state of emergency. Trump has said he wants to divert up to $8.1 billion toward the border wall, including $3.6 billion of “unobligated” funds in the military construction budget.

Unobligated funds in this context is money that has been appropriated, or set aside, but that hasn’t been spent because no contracts have been awarded.

Losing unobligated funds, even temporarily, could muddy the timeline for military projects around the globe, observers said.

“It is a real threat,” Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, said in an interview with the Union-Tribune. “The notion that we would take money from those, in effect delaying them, doesn’t make any sense.”

Robert McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, testified at the subcommittee hearing that the military projects likely to be deferred “will impose no or a minimal impact on military readiness.”

That wasn’t enough for some Congress members, who said they want to know which military construction projects may be de-funded or delayed.

“It’s clear these projects are critical to our military readiness and military families,” said Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, “which is why I voted to block Trump’s national emergency declaration…. Delaying these projects means delaying our military readiness, and there is no guarantee that Trump won’t raid these projects in the future."

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee recently disseminated a list of hundreds of military construction projects which they say are vulnerable because of unobligated funding. That list includes 26 projects at bases in San Diego County, totaling more than $940 million.

The San Diego projects include some high-profile weapons systems and training facilities on Navy and Marine Corps installations.

For instance, there is almost $80 million set aside for airfield improvements on Naval Air Station North Island, needed to accommodate the Navy’s new CMV-22B Ospreys.

Marine Ospreys are a common sight around MCAS Miramar, but North Island’s will be the Navy’s first.

Marine V-22 Ospreys perform at the 2018 Miramar Air Show. The Marines have been flying the aircraft for years now, however, the Navy has yet to receive them. Funds for new aircraft infrastructure at Naval Air Station North Island were approved by Congress but could be diverted. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A new Osprey squadron — VRM-30 — officially “stood up” on North Island in December but, as of now, it has no aircraft. Cmdr. Ronald Flanders, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces, said new facilities are needed before the aircraft are expected to arrive in 2020.

Flanders said he could not say if the timeframe for Osprey deployment would be affected by the emergency declaration.

Another new aircraft — the Marines’ next generation F-35B vertical takeoff and landing fighter — is due to arrive at MCAS Miramar early next year. Vertical landing pads and a taxiway for the base are among the projects that could be delayed or canceled, according to the list.

The F-35B Lightning II, Joint Strike Fighter demonstration at the MCAS Miramar Air Show. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Marine Capt. Matthew Gregory, a spokesman for the base, said he has not heard that project would be delayed, and he expects the fighters to arrive on time.

“At this point, it hasn’t been brought up,” he said. “Everything is on timeline.”

Also on the list are more $600 million in projects for Navy Special Warfare on Coronado. Construction is underway on the new Navy SEAL Coastal Campus at the southern end of the Silver Strand and, since many contracts remain to be awarded, a lot of that money could be redirected, the list suggests.

Another Navy project on the list is a new $48 million pier for Naval Base San Diego.

Lee Saunders, a spokesman for Naval Facilities Engineering Command, declined to comment on which projects could be affected.

“That's pure speculation and an issue for Congress and the president to decide,” he said.

Other projects possibly in the crosshairs include several at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, such as $47 million in potable water distribution improvements and almost $50 million for a maintenance and warehouse facility, the list shows.

Department of Defense Spokesman Christopher Sherwood said during an interview Wednesday that no decisions have been made regarding which projects to be cut.

Robert McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, testified at the subcommittee hearing that Trump is legally authorized by the emergency declaration to take funds from any project on that list.

“At this point in time… every unobligated dollar within the department is in consideration,” McMahon said.

But, it is unlikely that any project would be cancelled outright, he said. Instead, affected projects would be “deferred” to a later budget year, he said.

That means the defense department intends to ask Congress again to fund the projects.

Some Congress members said there is no guarantee that funding will be restored.

“I would want to reappropriate money for these projects,” Peters said, “but the concern, of course, is we’ve done this work and won the battles for San Diego, but we don’t know what the next budget would do.”

Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said at the hearing he supports President Trump, but he wants more information about how the Department of Defense would determine which projects to keep and which to delay.

“We have to solve the crisis at the southern border,” Carter said, “but not at the expense of those who’ve bravely served.”

Military readiness and border security are not mutually exclusive, said Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, in an email.

Harrison noted that the list of vulnerable projects came from the Democratic House members, “who are against the President’s emergency action. This does not mean, however, that the administration is actually reducing funding from these specific projects,” he said.

Added Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, whose district includes Camp Pendleton: “I’m hopeful that members here will be able to explain the importance, and (Trump) and his staff will hear the disturbing facts, of where the funds will come from…. If we want to keep the safety and security of the country in place, we have to have military that is trained effectively.”