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.