Levin: Troop reductions from Iraq, Afghanistan would net Defense savings

As Pentagon leaders seek to free up about $100 billion in the defense budget, the leading Senate Democrat on military matters said on Monday that any savings will depend on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the “success of any reductions in the Pentagon budget” would depend on savings from the significant troop reductions in Iraq this year and the pace of reducing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan starting next July.

“More than any other thing, this is going to affect the budget,” Levin said at a breakfast with defense reporters.

If the pace of the troop reduction in Afghanistan is “significant” next July, Levin said, the Pentagon could have “major savings.”

The wars are currently funded through the so-called overseas contingency funds. President Barack Obama has requested $130 billion in war funds for 2011 and an additional $33 billion for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Congress has not yet approved that war emergency-spending bill, though Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stressed that that legislation should be passed by the end of this week.

The Pentagon leadership has launched a major push to free up about $100 bilion over the next five years to maintain current fighting forces and modernize weapons systems. The goal is to find more savings within the defense budget without cutting the top-line number. Pentagon leaders are eyeing 2 to 3 percent real growth in budget areas that need it most: force structure and modernization.

Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter on Monday met with defense industry executives and Pentagon acquisition corps to discuss ways to cut waste in military contracts and restore affordability in defense contracts.

“It’s about eliminating unnecessary costs,” Carter said on Monday. The Pentagon’s acquisition chief described the effort as “doing more without more.”

Pentagon leaders are moving fast after Gates in late May announced, in a speech at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan., the initiative to scrutinize the defense budget and reduce Pentagon bloat.

“It’s obviously going to be difficult to do it, and if anyone can pull it off I think Secretary Gates can do it,” Levin said. “He, more than anybody I can think of, is able to, at the same time, make some very tough decisions and maintain the support of the pro-defense community.”

In his Kansas speech, Gates took aim at the secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — a project that has strong support from Levin. Gates has repeatedly threatened a veto recommendation of the defense bills to the president over the alternate engine, which he considers wasteful spending. Obama personally threatened a veto when the House gave the go-ahead to fund it in the 2011 defense authorization bill.

Levin on Monday was skeptical that Obama would follow through with a veto over the engine if it ends up in the final bill.

“I can’t imagine that, and we have heard very little about anything other than that,” he said.

The Michigan Democrat said there are other provisions more controversial than funding the engine made by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. Levin mentioned one that would make it impossible for the president to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and another that specifically directs the president to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the southwest border.

Levin also disputed Gates’s statement that companies competed for the contract to supply the F-35 engine.

“He’s wrong,” Levin said. “I know he feels that we ought to move on, but there has not been a competition for this engine.”

Levin’s staff provided a timeline to back up his statements. In 1996, the Pentagon awarded competitive contracts for the airframe to Boeing and Lockheed for the concept-development phase of the Joint Strike Fighter program.

At the time, both contractors selected a variant of the Pratt & Whitney engine made for the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. When the Pentagon picked a single contractor for the F-35 in 2001, Lockheed Martin maintained its selection of the Pratt & Whitney engine.

John Roth, an official in the Pentagon’s comptroller office, acknowledged in House testimony on May 19 that no competition was ever held.

According to Levin’s office, the Pentagon directed both competitors for the F-35 to use the Pratt & Whitney engine because initially the Pentagon assumed it would use the F-22 engine for the F-35 to have commonality.

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When the Pentagon realized that the F-22 engine would not meet the requirements for the F-35, no competition was held to meet the F-35 requirement and the Pentagon instead had Pratt & Whitney develop a derivative engine that would suit the F-35, according to the information provided by Levin’s office.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell on Monday restated the Pentagon’s position.

“We neither want nor can afford a second engine for the F-35.  It will cost too much time and money [$2.9 billion] and is just not worth it,” Morrell said.

Morrell said that both Boeing and Lockheed chose the Pratt & Whitney engine when they competed for the F-35 contract.

“It may not have been a government-sponsored competition, but it certainly was a competition in the marketplace and GE lost not once but twice.”

Morrell stressed that long before the Pentagon had an acquisition strategy for the F-35 both Lockheed and Boeing had opted to go with a derivative of the Pratt & Whitney F-22 engine and so were not directed by the Pentagon to use the Pratt & Whitney engine.

Additionally, Morrell said that the Pentagon is “not in the business” of sponsoring competitions for “every subcontract.”

Erin Dick, spokeswoman for Pratt & Whitney, said the competition to power the Joint Strike Fighter “occurred at the prime contractor level.”

“All of the competing contractors selected the propulsion system that would provide them the best competitive advantage to win the contract,” she said.

Levin expressed confidence that the Senate would pass the 2011 defense authorization bill, but said he worried about the threats of filibuster from his GOP counterpart, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). McCain could filibuster over a provision allowing for the repeal of the ban on gays in the military and potentially over a $1 billion cut from the administration’s $2 billion request for the Iraqi security forces.

“I don’t know how one can justify filibustering the defense authorization bill because there is either a provision that is not in it that you want in it or … there is a provision that is in that you want to get rid of. Let it go to the floor and try to add it [or] strike,” Levin said.