Defense notebook: Libya endgame, USAF on ‘tougher’ contracts

Amid the clamor on Capitol Hill last week over the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya, lawmakers and Pentagon officials made clear the war plan has no clear endgame.

Meanwhile, senior Air Force leaders told Senate appropriators about hundreds of millions in savings they have generated through “tougher” negotiating with the defense industry. What’s more, the air service’s top general suggested that shedding some Air Force personnel would help the service avoid “hollowing out” its fleet as Pentagon budgets shrink.

What’s the endgame?

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Officials gave no estimate of when the Libyan mission might come to an end during a closed-door briefing with senior administration, intelligence and military officials Wednesday, multiple lawmakers told The Hill.

An emotional Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) emerged from the Capitol Visitors Center auditorium and told reporters “they have no plan” for the remainder of the operation or for when U.S. involvement might end.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said “there rarely is a clear endgame” for such missions, adding he feels the White House was justified in acting as it did because Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces were moving to “slaughter” civilians in Benghazi.

When asked about the endgame, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said the officials “were very vague on that.”

The next day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen stressed that U.S. aircraft would soon be taking a back seat in offensive air strikes to NATO and coalition planes.

But the Pentagon officials said it remains too early to say how long the now NATO-led bombing and no-fly zone campaign will last.

Tough talk on contracts

The military services are squeezing their hardware programs and organizations to pare costs, and senior Air Force brass told lawmakers Wednesday of hundreds of millions of dollars in savings they uncovered by getting tough on industry.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told the Senate Appropriations Committee that service officials have found $600 million in savings by negotiating “tougher contracts” with industry.

The service also is enacting “better operational and infrastructure practices” to drive down fuel costs, Schwartz said.

Air chief: Smaller is better

Included in the debate about declining defense budgets is another about how large each service should be — and whether the services should be made smaller to allow for budget shrinkage.

Schwartz told the appropriations panel Air Force brass would prefer the service “be smaller, not bigger — and ready, not less capable” than have to raid hardware accounts to accommodate less overall annual funding.

Giving up some personnel would likely allow the air service to avoid slashing planned buys of new aircraft in a down budget cycle. Senior Pentagon officials say that would “hollow out” the military’s equipment arsenal.

The air chief, reportedly on the short list to become the next Joint Chiefs chairman, said he would prefer having a smaller, “quality” service.

Dems’ DADT tactics questioned

During a Friday House Armed Services Military Personnel subcommittee hearing, Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) questioned the 2010 repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay servicemen and servicewomen.

He said Democrats’ decision to push through the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal measure flew in the face of “representative democracy” because members who had been defeated in last November’s elections ended the controversial policy.

Wilson gave no indication, however, that he — or any other subcommittee Republican — plans to move a measure to re-institute the policy.

Pentagon officials told the subcommittee about 200,000 military personnel have undergone training on how to behave once the policy is formally ended in coming months. The officials said the training “is going well.”