What’s on the Chopping Block — and What’s Safe — in the Pentagon’s Shrinking Budget?

Here’s a look at what might get cut, and what might make the cut.

National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Feb. 23, 2014, 2 a.m.

On your marks, de­fense wonks.

This year’s scramble in Wash­ing­ton over the budget re­quest will start Monday, when De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel is ex­pec­ted to pre­view the fisc­al 2015 De­fense De­part­ment budget — a week be­fore the of­fi­cial re­quest goes to Con­gress.

Its first hint at budget pri­or­it­ies will spur the de­fense in­dustry to start lob­by­ing, law­makers to stake out their pri­or­it­ies, and the Pentagon to launch a charm of­fens­ive on Cap­it­ol Hill. And every­one in­volved will be chas­ing the same goal: keep­ing their pri­or­it­ies safe from cuts, even if that means nudging someone else’s pet pro­ject.

(Re­lated: What You Need to Know About the Next De­fense Budget)

Be­fore the budget Hun­ger Games be­gin, here are a few key pri­or­it­ies that could be on the chop­ping block as the Pentagon de­cides how to cut tens of bil­lions of dol­lars — and what might es­cape the ax.

1. The Un­touch­ables: What the Pentagon wants to trim, but can’t.

Per­son­nel Costs

Neither Con­gress nor the Pentagon ap­pear will­ing to pro­pose big re­forms to curb the rap­id growth of mil­it­ary pay and be­ne­fits, un­til a com­mis­sion makes re­com­mend­a­tions in Feb­ru­ary 2015. Still, some “fine-tune ad­just­ments” could be com­ing: Mil­it­ary pay raises capped at 1 per­cent; hous­ing al­low­ances changed; and fees were in­sti­tuted for Tri­care for Life, the health care pro­gram for re­tir­ees 65 and older.

Bases

The Pentagon may at­tempt to lay the ground­work for a round of base clos­ures. But Con­gress has re­buffed these at­tempts in the past, and even though the de­part­ment says it does not need these fa­cil­it­ies, many de­fense of­fi­cials ac­cept that polit­ic­ally speak­ing it’s still a vir­tu­ally im­possible ask in an elec­tion year. An aer­i­al view of For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base Cour­age. (Cour­tesy photo/Fort Sam Hou­s­ton, Texas)

The bot­tom line

“Con­gress is ba­sic­ally fen­cing off over 60 per­cent of the de­fense budget, and say­ing, ‘You can­not touch this,’ ” said Mack­en­zie Eaglen of the con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute think tank. “When you cor­don off so much of the de­fense budget as un­touch­able, it’s go­ing to make the cuts all the more steep in oth­er ac­counts…. They’re in­creas­ingly fight­ing over a shrink­ing pot of money called ‘pro­cure­ment.’ “

2. The ‘Losers’: Pro­grams that could be elim­in­ated…

…Or “post­poned,” po­ten­tially, forever. Many have been touted as top pri­or­it­ies to up­date or re­place aging weapons sys­tems or equip­ment.

The Air Force’s A-10

Last year, the Air Force tried to re­tire the Warthog fleet to free up cash for oth­er, new­er air­craft that could take over its close-air sup­port mis­sion — but Con­gress re­fused. “I would go to Ve­gas and put my money on it” be­ing slashed from this budget re­quest, Eaglen said. There’s already op­pos­i­tion brew­ing: Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire (whose hus­band is a former A-10 pi­lot) is lead­ing the charge on Cap­it­ol Hill. The A/OA-10 Thun­der­bolt II. (Greg L. Dav­is/U.S. Air Force)

The Mar­ine Corps’ Am­phi­bi­ous Com­bat Vehicle

The ACV was also once a top pri­or­ity, but the ser­vice may need to go with something more mod­est in­stead, such as the Mar­ine Per­son­nel Car­ri­er.

The cheap­er op­tion could have con­sequences. Mar­ines need a vehicle that can get from ship to shore while pro­tect­ing those on board. The ser­vice has been try­ing to de­vel­op a suc­cessor to its ex­ist­ing — and vin­tage — AAV-7 am­phi­bi­ous trans­ports. Without one, the ser­vice’s en­tire war-fight­ing ap­proach could change, said Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute think tank chief Loren Thompson, a de­fense-in­dustry con­sult­ant. “Tra­di­tion­ally, the Mar­ines have sent most of their force ashore through the surf. If they can’t ac­quire an ad­equately pro­tec­ted vehicle, they may have to send them on V-22s and heli­copters.”

The Army’s Ground Com­bat Vehicle

The Army has said the GCV was crit­ic­al — but now it seems the plan for the se­cure vehicle in­ten­ded to carry a full nine-per­son in­fantry squad is dead. Con­gress, pre­sum­ably with the de­part­ment’s si­gnoff, has es­sen­tially nixed the pro­gram already by drastic­ally cut­ting fund­ing. “The 2015 budget is go­ing to put the fi­nal nail in the coffin,” Eaglen said.

The Army will in­stead buy a cheap­er vehicle, likely an up­grade of the Brad­ley Fight­ing Vehicle. “A year ago, the Army was say­ing the Brad­ley was not ad­equately pro­tec­ted,” Thompson said, “Now it’s look­ing like the Brad­ley is the fu­ture of ground-com­bat op­er­a­tions.”

The Navy’s Su­per Hor­net and Growl­er

Ru­mor has it no new ver­sions of the F/A-18 E/F Su­per Hor­net strike fight­er or the EA-18 Growl­er will ap­pear in the Navy’s budget re­quest.

The Navy was plan­ning to buy the air­craft un­til the F-35 was ready. But if the Navy does not or­der more of the air­craft, or pro­poses up­grades to it, the St. Louis-based Boe­ing pro­duc­tion line — which sup­ports tens of thou­sands of jobs — will close. If it’s ab­sent from the budget re­quest, Boe­ing may launch a ma­jor lob­by­ing cam­paign to get Con­gress to force the Navy to buy more of those planes.

“It’s up to the Navy to de­cide what they want, but we’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to talk about their cap­ab­il­it­ies,” Boe­ing spokes­man Dan Beck said of the pro­grams, though he de­clined to spec­u­late on what might be — or not be — in the budget re­quest. “We also think that by pre­serving the cap­ab­il­ity to pro­duce these air­craft, it’s im­port­ant not only for the fu­ture of nav­al avi­ation but also for the fu­ture of the de­fense in­dus­tri­al base.

What else?

The Army’s Ad­vanced Aer­i­al Scout pro­gram — an at­tempt to re­place the aging Kiowa armed re­con­nais­sance heli­copter — was a top avi­ation pri­or­ity a year ago. But the Army’s de­cision to up­grade the Re­agan-era Apaches from the Na­tion­al Guard to do the re­con job, and not buy any new air­frames, will be re­flec­ted in the re­quest, Thompson said.

There are also ru­mors the Air Force is con­sid­er­ing scrap­ping some or all of its fleet of KC-10 re­fuel­ing tankers — and not fund­ing com­bat res­cue heli­copters, used for search-and-res­cue mis­sions and to re­place the aging and heav­ily used Pave Hawk heli­copters. Dozens of mem­bers of Con­gress are pree­mpt­ively push­ing back.

The bot­tom line

If his­tory — from the 1990s-era de­fense-spend­ing down­turn — is a les­son, pro­cure­ment will be the first, and deep­est, cut. But moves to scrap mod­ern­iz­a­tion pro­grams for lower cost up­grades means, “to put it bluntly, the U.S. is likely to suf­fer great­er cas­u­al­ties in fu­ture wars,” Thompson said. “If you keep op­er­at­ing old equip­ment in place of next-gen­er­a­tion then your force is go­ing to be less pro­tec­ted.”

3. The (Re­l­at­ive) ‘Win­ners’: Ma­jor pro­grams the mil­it­ary ser­vices can delay.

“Win­ners” mean­ing pro­grams trimmed less than everything else.

The Joint Strike Fight­er

The De­fense De­part­ment is plan­ning to re­quest eight few­er F-35 fight­er jets than pre­vi­ously planned in its budget. Yes, scal­ing back the pur­chase means pro­duc­tion for the fifth-gen­er­a­tion, stealthy, su­per­son­ic air­craft keeps go­ing. An F-35A Light­ning II ex­ecuted its first live-fire launch of a guided air-to-air mis­sile over a mil­it­ary test range off the Cali­for­nia coast on Oct. 30. (U.S. Air Force)

Lock­heed Mar­tin can make few­er fight­ers and be OK fin­an­cially. But budget cuts will rattle smal­ler com­pan­ies already mak­ing parts and writ­ing soft­ware for planes that won’t be ready for years — and delays and un­cer­tainty could ac­tu­ally raise costs, Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted last sum­mer.

Stretch­ing out the pro­gram or buy­ing few­er air­craft would be a “penny-wise and a pound-fool­ish” strategy, a seni­or Lock­heed of­fi­cial told NJ then. “They might save some, short term, but it’s go­ing to cost the tax­pay­ers more over time.” Lock­heed de­clined to com­ment or spec­u­late on any ex­pec­ted re­duc­tions pri­or to the form­al budget re­lease.

Lit­tor­al Com­bat Ship

The Pentagon dir­ec­ted the Navy to cut 20 of the lit­tor­al com­bat ships it was plan­ning to buy, from 52 to 32. The in­struc­tions were from act­ing deputy De­fense Sec­ret­ary Christine Fox — but Robert Work, the think-tank CEO and former Navy of­fi­cial nom­in­ated to take the spot, has been a strong sup­port­er of the war­ship. So we’ll see. The lit­tor­al com­bat ship USS Free­dom.
(Di­ana Quin­lan/U.S. Navy)

Cy­ber and Mis­sile De­fense

A few clear win­ners: Hagel has already prom­ised that money for cy­ber cap­ab­il­it­ies — from se­cur­ity to in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing and re­con­nais­sance — will get a boost. The Pentagon also wants $4.5 bil­lion in ex­tra mis­sile-de­fense fund­ing over the next five years.

Air­craft Car­ri­er

A nar­row es­cape: The Navy wanted to cut one of the ser­vice’s 11 air­craft car­ri­ers — but the White House, be­hind the scenes, in­ter­vened to stave off a brew­ing fight with Con­gress, where mem­bers such as House Armed Ser­vices Seapower Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Randy For­bes are already warn­ing against re­duc­tions. The USS George Wash­ing­ton seems to have staved off early re­tire­ment this year, but a car­ri­er may even­tu­ally go. Air­craft car­ri­er USS George Wash­ing­ton. (L.H. Dav­is/U.S. Navy)

Not happy about this? Don’t pan­ic — yet.

The Pentagon is plan­ning to sub­mit a $26 bil­lion list of pri­or­it­ies it could not fit in its budget re­quest — but would ap­pre­ci­ate, if Con­gress had the cash.

Wheth­er the pri­or­it­ies law­makers are up­set to see slashed from the base budget show up in that sep­ar­ate list, though, re­mains to be seen.

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