Senate Armed Services Committee Special Report

Tough Turf Ahead for Senate Armed Services

To help the military prepare for the future, the committee will have to navigate some rocky terrain. On a budget. Without a map.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, left, and ranking member James Inhofe await the start of a hearing of the Joint Cheif's of Staff on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.
National Journal
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Stacy Kaper
May 15, 2014, 5 p.m.

The Pentagon is done with the A-10 Warthog. The plane, of­fi­cially named the A-10 Thun­der­bolt II and primar­ily used to sup­port ground troops, is an ana­chron­ism in a mil­it­ary that doesn’t an­ti­cip­ate fight­ing ma­jor ground op­er­a­tions in the fu­ture, the De­fense De­part­ment says. Ceas­ing pro­duc­tion of the mod­el and moth­balling the ex­ist­ing planes, of­fi­cials add, would save $3.7 bil­lion over five years (plus an­oth­er $500 mil­lion if a wing-re­place­ment pro­gram is also scrapped). But if the de­part­ment ends the A-10 pro­gram, it’ll be over the ob­jec­tions of Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Re­pub­lic­ans Kelly Ayotte, John Mc­Cain, and Saxby Cham­b­liss, who have led the charge to block the cut, or at least slow it down.

The law­makers like the plane, which can fly at low alti­tudes and provided sup­port for ground troops in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. They note that it is cheap­er than more-ad­vanced mul­tipur­pose fight­er jets like the F-35, which is the Pentagon’s favored al­tern­at­ive. In ad­di­tion, the F-35 is still be­ing tested by the mil­it­ary and is not ex­pec­ted to be op­er­a­tion­al un­til the early 2020s — a deal-break­er, the law­makers say. “We are go­ing to fight that tooth and nail,” Mc­Cain told Na­tion­al Journ­al in April. “There is no re­place­ment for it un­less there is a re­place­ment for it.”

But some of the in­volve­ment of teeth and nails in this fight may also be at­trib­uted to the fact that sig­ni­fic­ant fleets of the A-10 are based in Ari­zona and Geor­gia — Mc­Cain’s and Cham­b­liss’s re­spect­ive home states.

Pro­tect­ing one’s home turf from fund­ing cuts is hardly a new game on the Hill — it’s a big part of be­ing a law­maker — but un­der the se­quester it has turned from a chess match in­to a blood sport. “The dif­fer­ence is that now that the budget is get­ting tight­er, the fights are get­ting more in­tense,” says Todd Har­ris­on, a de­fense-budget stud­ies fel­low with the non­par­tis­an Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and Budget­ary As­sess­ments. “The same dy­nam­ic was here be­fore se­quest­ra­tion hit…. It is just more in­tens­i­fied be­cause of the budget con­straints.”

And that’s made the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee a lot less fun than it used to be.

Not long ago, sen­at­ors went to the com­mit­tee to bring pieces of the Pentagon’s massive budget back to their home states — and then re­minded their con­stitu­ents of it when elec­tion sea­son rolled around. But then along came se­quest­ra­tion, com­plete with man­dat­ory mil­it­ary budget caps, and sud­denly law­makers are no longer si­phon­ing new re­sources from an ex­pand­ing pool; they’re scram­bling to pro­tect what they already have.

If the com­mit­tee be­comes too deeply em­broiled in par­ish-pump polit­ics, however, the coun­try stands to pay a heavy price. The cur­rent Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices mem­bers are charged with one of Con­gress’s most im­port­ant tasks: provid­ing ci­vil­ian guid­ance to a mil­it­ary that is on the cusp of a crit­ic­al trans­ition. The Ir­aq War is of­fi­cially over — al­though the on-the-ground real­ity sug­gests a story far from fin­ished — and the war in Afgh­anistan is wind­ing down. And as those con­flicts end, or at least tail off, the mil­it­ary is look­ing east to Asia, deal­ing with a re­sur­gent Rus­sia, and con­tinu­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al Whac-A-Mole ex­er­cise aimed at stamp­ing out al-Qaida and its af­fil­i­ates.

To com­plete its evol­u­tion, the mil­it­ary will need Con­gress’s help, most cru­cially in the form of a budget that meets the de­mands of its new mis­sion. At times, do­ing what the Pentagon prefers will dove­tail with law­makers’ de­sires to bring money back to their con­stitu­ents, but in some cases com­mit­tee mem­bers will have to swal­low hard and choose between na­tion­al needs and home-state in­terests.

“It doesn’t help that it’s an elec­tion year and both sides are jock­ey­ing for po­s­i­tion on every is­sue that might mat­ter to voters,” notes Har­ris­on, who says that dy­nam­ic is already hav­ing a broad­er ef­fect. “They are miss­ing some big op­por­tun­it­ies to shape the draw­down in a way that the mil­it­ary can ac­tu­ally come out of it stronger and bet­ter equipped for the fu­ture.”

The struggle to keep both law­makers and the Pentagon happy will play out largely through the com­mit­tee’s work on the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, the com­mit­tee’s an­nu­al Pentagon budget guide. As the pan­el looks for con­veni­ent places to land its hatchet, however, it is un­likely to find any easy an­swers.

Con­gress learned that les­son the hard way dur­ing the latest spend­ing talks, when the bi­par­tis­an budget deal in­cluded more than $6 bil­lion in cuts to mil­it­ary re­tire­ment be­ne­fits. From a pa­ro­chi­al per­spect­ive, it was a per­fect solu­tion: It neither elim­in­ated any spe­cif­ic pro­grams nor closed any bases; in­stead, it spread the pain na­tion­wide and down the road. From a polit­ic­al per­spect­ive, it was a dis­aster. Vet­er­ans and act­ive ser­vice mem­bers mo­bil­ized en masse against the cuts, ter­ri­fy­ing Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats in­to a race to re­verse a de­cision they’d just agreed was the right one. (The Pentagon, which had ini­tially been si­lent on the plan, even­tu­ally called on Con­gress to wait for a com­pens­a­tion-com­mis­sion re­port on be­ne­fits due out next year, and re­com­men­ded grand­fath­er­ing be­ne­fits for ex­ist­ing ser­vice mem­bers and mil­it­ary re­tir­ees.)

As polit­ic­ally sens­it­ive as is it is to take away any be­ne­fits from “our troops,” however, per­son­nel costs make up an already large — and grow­ing — por­tion of the budget. If Con­gress treats them as sac­rosanct in the 2015 de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, law­makers will have to look else­where for ways to meet the se­quester’s de­mands. And when the com­mit­tee tries to cut spend­ing by cut­ting pro­grams, it will run in­to a fa­mil­i­ar prob­lem: For every pro­gram that looks ripe for the knife, there will be a con­gres­sion­al cham­pi­on to pro­tect it.

In­deed, the A-10 is far from the only pro­gram where the Pentagon already finds it­self at odds with a home-state sen­at­or. If the Pentagon wants to cut back on sea­far­ing car­ri­ers, it will be over the ob­jec­tions of Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat Tim Kaine, whose state hosts the New­port News nav­al shipyard — which claims $4 bil­lion in rev­en­ues and em­ploys 23,400 work­ers. Con­necti­c­ut Demo­crat Richard Blu­menth­al is fo­cused on sub­mar­ines — New Lon­don is home to the primary East Coast sub­mar­ine base — and on the Pentagon’s plans for those F-35s, which are ex­pec­ted to gen­er­ate thou­sands of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in Con­necti­c­ut. And Re­pub­lic­an Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama, where the U.S. Army Space and Mis­sile De­fense Com­mand is headquartered, says he is fo­cused on se­cur­ing dol­lars for mis­sile de­fense. In all of these cases, the line between na­tion­al in­terest and home-state eco­nom­ics is a blurry one; law­makers’ pet de­fense pro­grams nearly al­ways have some na­tion­al se­cur­ity be­ne­fits, which makes it risky for the com­mit­tee to dis­miss them as pure pork.

To make mat­ters more dif­fi­cult for the pan­el, pa­ro­chi­al­ism is not a dis­ease unique to Con­gress: The Pentagon is home to plenty of pro­grams that con­tin­ue to ex­ist mainly be­cause they are backed by in­tern­al fac­tions in­ter­ested in keep­ing them around — be­cause they provide jobs with­in a par­tic­u­lar branch of the mil­it­ary; be­cause they rep­res­ent money and power with­in a giv­en de­part­ment; be­cause they are bound up with someone’s ca­reer am­bi­tions or prestige; or be­cause they are im­port­ant to ma­jor con­tract­ors.

On top of all that, what ex­actly the mil­it­ary of the fu­ture should look like is an open — and con­ten­tious — ques­tion, and the chal­lenges fa­cing the coun­try are myri­ad and con­tinu­ally shift­ing, leav­ing the com­mit­tee with the un­en­vi­able task of try­ing to lay out a mil­it­ary budget by way of a crys­tal ball.

Take Afgh­anistan. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is still ham­mer­ing out what its fu­ture pres­ence in the coun­try will look like. A run­off pres­id­en­tial elec­tion there will not take place un­til June, and after new lead­er­ship is in­stalled it could still take months to reach a fi­nal bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity agree­ment. In the mean­time, U.S. com­mand­ers are un­sure wheth­er they will be pulling out all troops or leav­ing in place a force of 10,000 to as­sist the Afghan mil­it­ary and to con­duct coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions in the re­gion.

The situ­ation in Syr­ia also re­mains un­stable. More than eight months since the ad­min­is­tra­tion sought Con­gress’s au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of force to pun­ish Bashar al-As­sad, dip­lo­mat­ic pro­gress has hit a wall. The re­mov­al of Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons has stalled over a dis­pute about the fate of the na­tion’s weapons-stor­age fa­cil­it­ies. At the same time, in­ter­na­tion­al weapons in­spect­ors are in­vest­ig­at­ing fresh claims that the As­sad re­gime re­cently launched a chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack against its own people us­ing chlor­ine.

Rus­sia’s ag­gres­sion to­ward Ukraine has heightened ten­sions with — and un­cer­tainty about — the former Cold War foe. U.S. troops have been sent to Latvia, Lithuania, and Es­to­nia, and De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel has urged NATO lead­ers to in­crease their de­fense spend­ing to en­sure that they can re­spond to any po­ten­tial chal­lenges posed by Rus­sia. Hagel also re­mains on guard against Chinese cyberes­pi­on­age, and he has said that Beijing’s de­clar­a­tion of an air-de­fense zone in the East China Sea could even­tu­ally lead to a “dan­ger­ous con­flict.” And, of course, there’s Ir­aq, to which the U.S. is send­ing more in­tel­li­gence of­ficers due to es­cal­at­ing vi­ol­ence in the re­gion.

There are also policy chal­lenges at home — in­clud­ing is­sues that go bey­ond dol­lars and cents. Chief among them: the mil­it­ary’s pro­ced­ure for hand­ling ac­cus­a­tions of rape and sexu­al as­sault. Con­gress thor­oughly de­bated le­gis­la­tion aimed at ad­dress­ing the prob­lem for much of the past year, and while sev­er­al pro­pos­als have be­come law, many crit­ics say there is more work to do.

In short, the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee will be charged with guid­ing the budget for a mil­it­ary that must change in still-un­fore­see­able ways to face emer­ging chal­lenges around the globe — and to do it without cut­ting any­thing that will hurt na­tion­al se­cur­ity, an­ger or sub­mar­ine an im­port­ant law­maker, af­flict troops or vet­er­ans, or ali­en­ate deep-pock­eted de­fense con­tract­ors.

Well, nobody prom­ised it was go­ing to be fun.


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