In Defense Budget Hunger Games, What’s on Congress’s Wish List?

Congress’s pet priorities in the Defense budget don’t always match Pentagon’s.

The A/OA-10 Thunderbolt II is the first Air Force aircraft specially designed for close air support of ground forces. They are simple, effective and survivable twin-engine jet aircraft that can be used against all ground targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles. The A-10/OA-10 have excellent maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude, and are highly accurate weapons-delivery platforms. They can loiter near battle areas for extended periods of time and operate under 1,000-foot ceilings (303.3 meters) with 1.5-mile (2.4 kilometers) visibility. Their wide combat radius and short takeoff and landing capability permit operations in and out of locations near front lines. Using night vision goggles, A-10/ OA-10 pilots can conduct their missions during darkness. Thunderbolt IIs have Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS), goggle compatible single-seat cockpits forward of their wings and a large bubble canopy which provides pilots all-around vision. The pilots are protected by titanium armor that also protects parts of the flight-control system. The redundant primary structural sections allow the aircraft to enjoy better survivability during close air support than did previous aircraft. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Amn. Greg
National Journal
Stacy Kaper and Sara Sorcher
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Stacy Kaper Sara Sorcher
March 20, 2014, 1 a.m.

Mem­bers of Con­gress can fi­nally feel the polit­ic­al pain the hun­dreds of bil­lions of de­fense budget cuts they signed in­to law will bring to their dis­tricts. And they want to es­cape it.

Law­makers, de­cry­ing the con­tro­ver­sial cuts in the Pentagon’s budget next year, want the de­part­ment to fund their polit­ic­al pri­or­it­ies. Here’s the prob­lem: There’s only a lim­ited pot of money to go around.

Let the de­fense budget Hun­ger Games be­gin. To fund their pet pro­jects, law­makers will have to fight with the Pentagon and each oth­er.

(Re­lated: A Tale of Two Wish Lists)

The Pentagon, for its part, has de­tailed $26 bil­lion worth of pro­grams it wants fun­ded next year — on top of its $496 bil­lion budget re­quest, which meets the budget caps Con­gress im­posed. But this list omits some of law­makers’ most cher­ished pro­grams. There’s zero chance Con­gress will ac­cept the Pentagon’s so-called Op­por­tun­ity, Growth and Se­cur­ity ini­ti­at­ive as writ­ten — even if law­makers change the law to al­low the Pentagon the ex­tra cash it wants.

“The pres­id­ent’s budget is a polit­ic­al doc­u­ment, and I don’t see [the wish list] go­ing any­where,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an.

It’s not just the Pentagon’s wish list at stake. Law­makers may even try to find money for their own pri­or­it­ies by gou­ging pro­grams the Pentagon con­siders the most cru­cial and that it wants fun­ded in its core, base budget.

Everything will be a tradeoff in this era of fisc­al pres­sure. “If they force us, as they have every year, to keep things we don’t want to keep,” act­ing deputy De­fense sec­ret­ary Christine Fox has said of Con­gress, “…there’s not slop here. We have to take it out some­where else.”

So what’s on the wish lists of mem­bers of Con­gress?

For starters, Ayotte and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss of Geor­gia are char­ging ahead in their de­fense of the A-10 air­craft, which the Pentagon wants to re­tire to make room in its budget for oth­er air­craft, such as the F-35 fight­er jet. “I’m cer­tainly go­ing to do ob­vi­ously everything I can to re­verse these cuts,” Ayotte said. “This has been a proven plat­form that saves lives.”

Of course, the sen­at­ors cer­tainly have their per­son­al reas­ons to save the air­craft — and not just be­cause it’s a fa­vor­ite among sol­diers thanks to its abil­ity to fly low and take out en­emy tar­gets even when they’re close to U.S. troops on the ground. Ayotte’s hus­band is a former A-10 pi­lot, and dozens of the A-10 planes are based in Geor­gia and Ari­zona. But cut­ting the plane would save the Pentagon $3.7 bil­lion over five years — plus an­oth­er $500 mil­lion if a wing-re­place­ment pro­gram is also nixed. The Air Force says that keep­ing it could cost even more.

So if Ayotte and the A-10 ad­voc­ates want to keep the plane, they must find a way to make up the sav­ings — read: cut an­oth­er pro­gram in its place. The Air Force, for its part, found cut­ting the A-10 was the least risky op­tion in terms of na­tion­al se­cur­ity. To reach that same level of sav­ings in its budget, the Air Force would have had to cut the en­tire B-1 bomber fleet or about 350 F-16s.

Keep­ing the A-10 won’t just be a battle with the Pentagon, however. Vir­tu­ally every pro­gram has a con­stitu­ency on Cap­it­ol Hill, so suc­cess­fully haul­ing an­oth­er pro­gram onto the chop­ping block won’t ne­ces­sar­ily be easy. The F-16 is a good ex­ample. The Pentagon says it can­not carry out its mis­sions if it slashes hun­dreds of F-16s, and the fleet is scattered across many states — and con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts.

The Pentagon also wants an­oth­er round of base clos­ures, to shed fa­cil­it­ies it no longer needs and can­not af­ford. Pentagon comp­troller Robert Hale ex­pects this to cost around $6 bil­lion at first, but it would save $2 bil­lion each year in per­petu­ity — which would add up to sig­ni­fic­ant sav­ings over time that law­makers would have to make up if they want to keep their bases.

That’s not stop­ping them from try­ing. Law­makers with mil­it­ary bases or in­stall­a­tions in their dis­tricts that could po­ten­tially be on the chop­ping block are already lin­ing up against the pro­posed clos­ures, in­clud­ing Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Ayotte of New Hamp­shire and Sens. Richard Blu­menth­al and Chris Murphy, both Con­necti­c­ut Demo­crats.

Sev­er­al law­makers voiced their con­cerns with polit­ic­ally sens­it­ive ad­just­ments to mil­it­ary com­pens­a­tion and be­ne­fits in the budget re­quest, in­clud­ing in­creased out-of-pock­et costs for mil­it­ary hous­ing and high­er fees for Tri­care, the mil­it­ary health care sys­tem. “That can’t be done,” said House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Buck McK­eon. “Or if that could be done, it shouldn’t be done.” But those re­duc­tions would res­ult in a net sav­ings, ac­cord­ing to budget doc­u­ments, of at least $11.9 bil­lion over five years — a whole lot of money the law­makers would need to find an­oth­er way to pay for.

The Pentagon is also scal­ing back the Lit­tor­al Com­bat Ship pro­gram, a next-gen­er­a­tion sur­face ship his­tor­ic­ally con­tro­ver­sial for its delays and cost over­runs, down to 32 ships from its planned pur­chase of 52. The Pentagon has com­mis­sioned a task force to de­term­ine wheth­er it should build any more, modi­fy the ship’s design, or de­term­ine what oth­er small sur­face com­batant ship may be bet­ter.

But mem­bers of Con­gress in both parties are already fight­ing against cut­ting the or­ders, in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama, and Demo­crat­ic Sens. Tammy Bald­win of Wis­con­sin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Brad­ley Byrne of Alabama, a mem­ber of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, in­sisted, “We can­not al­low the live­li­hoods of thou­sands of South Alabama fam­il­ies and the fu­ture of the United States Navy to hang in the bal­ance over an ar­bit­rary de­cision from the ad­min­is­tra­tion.” The ship is man­u­fac­tured in part by Aus­tal USA’s Port of Mo­bile fa­cil­ity, which em­ploys 4,000 res­id­ents of South Alabama. And Rep. Re­id Ribble of Wis­con­sin, whose dis­trict also helps build the ship, said, “Es­pe­cially in lean budget­ary times, our mil­it­ary needs to have this cost-ef­fect­ive ves­sel as part of its ar­sen­al.”

There’s a lit­any of oth­er pri­or­it­ies on Cap­it­ol Hill. Rep. Rob Bish­op, a Utah Re­pub­lic­an, is rail­ing against the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s planned re­duc­tions in the num­ber of F-35 fight­er jets it wants to buy next year, say­ing it would “delay the pro­gram and drive up costs.” The Air Force plans to cut nearly 500 air­craft in 25 states — in­clud­ing the C-130 mil­it­ary-trans­port air­craft sta­tioned at Pope Air­field in North Car­o­lina. Of course, Sen. Kay Hagan, a Demo­crat from that state, “strongly” dis­agrees with the de­cision.

As mem­bers of Con­gress craft — and de­bate — the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion and ap­pro­pri­ations bills in the com­ing weeks and months, law­makers may want to re­mem­ber De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel’s sober­ing words about the tough choices fa­cing the de­part­ment: “I wish we could keep every plat­form we have every­where, but we can’t.”

Some things will have to go. The ques­tion is, what will be left stand­ing in the end — and who on Cap­it­ol Hill will be­ne­fit or suf­fer the con­sequences?

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