Armed Services chairman has 'significant concerns' about DoD budget plan

A key GOP leader says the Obama administration’s defense budget for the next five years is too small. 

The White House released a budget proposal on Monday that contains a spending plan for defense that grows from $553 billion in 2012 to a projected $611 billion by 2016.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) said he has “significant concerns” about the 2012 Pentagon spending plan. To McKeon, the requested figure is a cut, since the amount for 2012 is $13 billion smaller than the one projected by the Pentagon one year ago.

What’s more, the plan “leads to zero percent real growth in the out years — when Secretary Gates himself has warned of the dire consequences of less than [2 percent to 3 percent] real growth in force structure and modernization accounts given the threat environment we face,” McKeon said in a statement.

McKeon was referring to long-term spending projections — which are arrived at during months of deliberations between Pentagon brass and White House budget officials — through 2016. 

The out years projections show the Pentagon seeking $571 billion for 2013, $586 billion in 2014, $598 billion in 2015, and topping the $600 billion mark ($611 billion) by 2016. The annual Pentagon budget was $297 billion in 2001, before the post-9/11 spending spree roared to life.

Senior DoD officials say these long-term estimates represent “modest growth.” 

“This budget represents a reasonable, responsible and sustainable level of funding, the minimum level of defense spending that is necessary, given the security challenges we are facing around the globe,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement.

Still, some Pentagon brass, lawmakers and industry executives say tough times have arrived for the U.S. defense sector.

The White House already slashed $78 billion from the Pentagon’s five-year spending plans, and Gates’ internal cost-cutting efforts produced over $100 billion in savings.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale on Tuesday revealed Gates signed on to the $78 billion cut because he felt the department needed to help Washington shrink the federal deficit.

Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen are scheduled to appear before McKeon's committee on Wednesday.

Some defense analysts and former budget officials say more cutting is needed.

“There is no logic or compelling reason for a linear extrapolation of the current defense budget into the future, though it is always DOD’s fondest wish,” said Gordon Adams. “We can manage a build-down, and we should be ready to manage one as we tackle our fiscal future and emerge into the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world.”

Loren Thompson, a defense consultant and analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the spending plan shows the Pentagon’s buying power is in decline.

“When you factor in the effects of inflation, the buying power of the budget is flat as a pancake, and likely to stay that way given the continuous erosion of U.S. economic strength over the last decade,” Thompson said Monday in a blog post.

Gates and other Pentagon officials met with congressional defense lawmakers and aides over lunch on Tuesday to discuss the plan. 

The secretary acknowledged “there is some discontent” among lawmakers about the budget blueprint, but focused during the press briefing on their concerns that DoD informed lawmakers of several budget moves only hours before briefing the press. The secretary suggested such concerns are moot because the defense panels got budget information six weeks sooner than other committees.

In all, the defense-spending plan seeks $671 billion for 2012, including $117.8 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As expected, within the $553 billion base budget request, Pentagon officials propose canceling a Marine Corps amphibious craft and shake up the troubled F-35 fighter program. The spending plan follows suit with those of recent years by seeking additional unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and helicopters that are crucial in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

The 2012 budget request seeks $145 billion for the Army, up from the last enacted amount of $138 billion in fiscal 2010. It seeks $161.4 billion for the Navy and Marine Corps, which got $155.3 billion in 2010. The Air Force is requesting $150 billion, which received $142.4 billion in 2010.

As expected, the budget blueprint requests monies that would allow the Air Force to try once again to development a new bomber aircraft. The administration also requests funds to start buying new aerial tankers, as well as to continue development of a new helicopter fleet for the president and a new search-and-rescue chopper.

The Pentagon wants $142 billion to cover its biggest expenditure: its people. That would be an increase from the $135.7 billion enacted for DoD personnel accounts in 2010. For procurement, the department is requesting $113 billion, up from the $103.2 billion enacted for 2010. The Pentagon is seeking a significant cut for its research and development programs: $75.3 billion, $4 billion less than it received in 2010.

Specifically, the administration wants “more than $10 billion to modernize the rotary wing aircraft crucial to U.S. military operations,” according to a DoD budget summary.

The plan also seeks $4.8 billion to develop and buy additional Northrop Grumman-made Global Hawk RQ-4 UAVs, General Atomics-made Predator UAVs, and other “less-expensive, low-altitude systems,” states the summary.

As Gates announced in early January, the Pentagon’s budget plan adds $4 billion to the F-35 fighter program. The summary document states those dollars would be used “for system design and development.” That increase swells the total F-35 spending request for 2012 to $9.7 billion.

The department also will deviate from its previously plans to buy 41 F-35s next year; it now plans to purchase only 32 as the program office and prime contractor Lockheed Martin continue wrestling with ongoing technical issues. Those problems, as Gates said in January, led him to place the Marines’ short-take-off-and-landing variant of the fighter on probation for two years -- it also will be the last variant DoD starts to buy.

And “to compensate for anticipated [F-35] delays, DoD plans to procure an additional 41 F/18s in the fiscal 2012-2016 time frame,” according to the budget document. Boeing makes the F/A-18, and is considered the top beneficiary from F-35 problems.

The spending plan also proposes reductions in the size of the Army and Marine Corps, envisioned for 2015 and 2016 — and this, too, worries McKeon. 

Additionally, the plan would fund what DoD calls a “robust” yet “realistic, executable” shipbuilding plan for the Navy. The Navy would by 11 ships in 2012 under the plan, including: one DDG-51 destroyer, to Virginia-class submarines, four Littoral Combat Ships, one amphibious transport dock ship.

McKeon and other congressional Republicans are expected to take umbrage with the administration’s missile defense plans.

The Pentagon’s budget seeks $10.7 billion for ballistic missile defense programs. Of that amount, $8.6 billion would go to the Missile Defense Agency. The administration wants $2 billion for its European missile defense system, which Republicans have panned. It also wants $780 million to “increase regional radars, continue MDA’s flight test program, add additional ground-based interceptors, and hedge capabilities against potential threats,” the summary states.

Congressional Republicans also have blasted the nuclear weapons treaty the administration recently finalized with Russia. 

In garnering support in the Senate for that pact, the White House agreed to step up programs to modernize America’s existing nukes — the budget plan asks for $2.2 billion between 2012 and 2016 for that work. Hale called this program “an aggressive” one.

This story was updated at 7:21 p.m.