Budget ax hovering over the military

House lawmakers have rejected most of the Pentagon’s proposed cost-saving measures for next year, raising serious questions about how the military will stay under budget limits once sequestration returns in 2016.

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The House Armed Services Committee this week passed a defense bill that rejected plans from the Pentagon to save billions of dollars by cutting an aircraft carrier, legacy aircraft, troop pay raises and benefits and excess bases.           

“By handcuffing the Pentagon, the Congress is forcing the military to become hollow,” said Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. 

The Pentagon had proposed retiring an aircraft carrier in 2016 that would cost billions of dollars to keep in service, and had set that plan in motion by not putting any money towards maintenance and repair in 2015.

The House panel rejected that decision, allocating $796.2 million towards refueling and overhauling the carrier in 2015.

Still, it is unclear but it is unclear how the Pentagon would foot the rest of the bill, since the repair of the carrier is expected to cost as much as $6 billion over the next several years, and billions more in operations throughout its lifespan. 

The effort to save the carrier was led by Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), in whose state the carrier would be repaired. 

The House panel also rejected a proposal to retire the Air Force’s A-10 fleet that would have saved more than $4 billion over the next five years, instead putting $635 million towards maintaining, operating and upgrading the planes in 2015.

The amendment to save the A-10 was led by Rep. Ron Barbour (D-Ariz.), who state is home to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and an A-10 fighter wing. 

The panel also rejected reducing troop pay raises, reforming the military’s health care system, and reducing benefits that would have saved the Pentagon tens of billions of additional dollars. 

The committee’s bill stays under the spending cap of $521.3 billion that lawmakers set for 2015, but puts off the budgetary decisions could force the Pentagon to take more drastic actions beginning in 2016.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Panel, criticized the bill, saying it “neglects to make some of the difficult choices necessary to confront our long-term fiscal challenges.”

Although the decision by lawmakers to punt on budget cuts will not have a major effect in 2015, it could create tough fiscal choices in the next Congress

Sequester defense cuts of $500 billion over 10 years were triggered in 2013 when lawmakers failed to agree on tax and spending reforms. While lawmakers reversed $22 billion of the defense cuts in 2014, and $9 billion in 2015, the cuts of $50 billion per year are scheduled to hit in full in 2016 — the same time as the Pentagon had hoped to realize major savings. 

“The cost of not doing these things is relatively small for 2015, but it’s enormous if you look out over the next five to 10 years,” Harrison said.

Harrison noted that keeping the A-10 would cost less than half a billion dollars in 2015, but an additional $5 billion over the next five years.

And rejecting the compensation and pay reforms proposed by the Pentagon would only cost $1.5 billion in 2015, but cost $17 or $18 billion in cumulative costs over the next five years, Harrison said. 

The Pentagon on Friday said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was "not pleased" by the House committee's bill. 

"His hope is that the Congress will see the wisdom in the strategic choices, the hard decisions that he has made. And his expectation is that they'll be willing to make the same ones," said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby at a press briefing. 

The legislation will be considered and possibly amended when it is considered by the full House in two weeks. It will also have to be reconciled with the Senate’s defense bill, which isn't expected to be finished until this summer, at the earliest. 

Also, the House and Senate will have to pass a defense appropriations bill, which will determine whether any money will be put towards the authorizations made by the Armed Services committees. 

Still, several Senate Armed Services Committee members have said they too will oppose retiring an aircraft carrier, grounding the A-10 or closing excess bases. 

Military chiefs warn that if Congress continues to dismiss their cost-saving proposals, they will eventually have to make severe cutbacks to training and equipment that could weaken America’s military might.

Over time, the U.S. military’s ability to be the best equipped in the world would erode, Harrison said. 

“Cutting back on force levels and training reduces your near term readiness response to a crisis within the next year or two, and cutting back on modernization hurts your long term readiness” for war, he said. 

Smith said lawmakers need to face up to hard realities.

“I understand none of the choices we are faced with are popular, or what any of us want, but that does not give us an excuse to undermine our military readiness," Smith said.

"As we move to the floor and then to conference with the Senate, I encourage my colleagues to look beyond parochial interests and focus on what is good for our country."