At Pentagon, pre-emptive budget strikes

Lawmakers are trying to strong-arm the Pentagon into saving favored programs and pet projects ahead of the release of its 2015 budget next month.

Projects on the do-not-touch list include the Navy’s 11-carrier fleet — defended by Rep. Randy Forbes (R) and others in Virginia where carriers are built — and the Air Force’s A-10 “Warthog” aircraft, long a favorite of Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.).

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Other lawmakers say the Defense Department should avoid cutting the Army National Guard or its Apache helicopters, and that it should fund the combat rescue helicopter program.

The pre-emptive strikes highlight the difficulty the Pentagon will face in cutting programs to tighten its belt, as well as the lengths lawmakers will go to protect programs and jobs on their home turf.

Plus, there are signs the Pentagon isn’t that interested in belt-tightening. Defense sources say the department is readying a $26 billion “wish list” of programs that it would fund if Congress provided the money.

“This Congress is proving much more political in its approach to military spending than during past downturns,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute who consults with several defense firms. “We got rid of a lot of equipment after the Cold War, over 100 programs were cancelled, but now you can’t even retire a decrepit tank killer.”

The military must fit its 2015 spending under the $521 billion cap set by the budget agreement reached in December, $21 billion less than what it proposed in last year’s budget request.

Lawmakers are already having an impact on the 2015 budget.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Pentagon was dropping plans to mothball the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, as the White House intervened over concerns about the political ramifications of having the fight in an election year.

Forbes, the Armed Services seapower chairman and a major Navy shipbuilding advocate, led a bipartisan letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month warning that Congress would not support cutting any carriers.

“There is no doubt that there is enduring bipartisan support for a robust Navy supporting a capital fleet of 11 nuclear aircraft carriers,” the letter said.

Most of the recent attempts by the Pentagon to cut programs have also gone nowhere.

The Air Force, for instance, was halted for two years from retiring the Global Hawk Block 30 drone in favor of its manned U-2 surveillance planes.

Now it plans in the 2015 budget to fully fund the Global Hawk at the expense of the U-2 beginning in 2016, according to defense sources, effectively conceding to the will of Congress.

The Air Force was also blocked from cutting its Guard and Reserve units and aircraft. Instead, Congress appointed a commission that recommended last month to cut active-duty units and bolster the reserves.

Moreover, lawmakers never even considered the Pentagon’s half-hearted attempts the past two years to start a new round of base closures.

Observers say the cases show that for all of its talk, Congress is often more concerned with home-state interests than reducing military spending or looking at the Pentagon’s larger, strategic objectives.

“A lot of these things are just about jobs in people’s districts,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“And the more they do this, the harder it is for DOD to come up with a coherent, strategically informed plan,” he said. “I think we’re getting to the point that it just breaks, and the budget is increasingly disconnected from the strategic aspirations.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) this week complained at the unwillingness of his colleagues to consider cuts to pension benefits for working-age military retirees, an issue seen as a test case for future reform of ballooning personnel costs.

“Unfortunately, the bulk of what is happening, as far as interest groups and as far as members of Congress are concerned, is to simply try to protect everything,” Smith said. “We have become increasingly interest-group driven and parochial driven.”

Lawmakers say they are fighting the Pentagon over specific programs because they disagree with its national security or budgetary decisions.

On the A-10 Thunderbolt cuts, for instance, Ayotte has questioned which aircraft the Pentagon would put in its place for the A-10’s close-air support missions.

“They won’t dispute A-10 is better,” Ayotte told The Hill. “Ask the men and women on the ground. They’ll tell you the A-10 is proven.”

Of course, keeping the A-10s flying would also lift Ayotte’s state. BAE Systems Inc. subsidiary Electronic Systems — based in Nashua, N.H. — works on the “friend or foe” software upgrades the A-10 is due to receive.

Ayotte also has a personal connection to the plane: Her husband was an A-10 pilot.

For Barber, the A-10 is a major component of Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., in his district.

The issue is of enough importance there that one local columnist wrote tht Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) were “missing” on the issue.

When it comes to cutting the National Guard, every lawmaker has a home-state interest.

Amid reports that the Army Guard would be scaled back to 315,000 from 350,000 — and its Apache helicopters sent to the active-duty Army — Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) has already introduced legislation with more than 60 co-sponsors to block the Army’s moves.

Wilson, the Armed Services Personnel subcommittee chairman, also proposed a commission similar to the Air Force review panel that Congress put in place.

“I’m very proud of what the Guard and Reserve can do, and we want to send a clear signal to Army leadership of the strong support for the Guard and Reserve in the U.S. Congress,” Wilson said in an interview with The Hill.

Congress is also fighting to fund new programs, as more than 70 lawmakers sent a December letter urging Hagel to fund the rescue combat helicopter that is in jeopardy.

Some programs are still expected to face the axe in the 2015 budget, most notably the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle. Congress already cut funding for the program in its 2014 appropriations bill.

Gordon Adams, a defense analyst at the Stimson Center, said that the Pentagon will still manage to get its desired savings by cutting end strength and more mundane procurement programs.

“To get the money, you have to go after the low-hanging fruit, and the low-hanging fruit is how big is the force,” Adams said. “But you don’t tackle the pet rocks or big systems. It’s just not doable.”