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.

Image has been reviewed by U.S. Military prior to transmission.) In this handout provided by the U.S. Air Force, a HH-60G Pave Hawk hovers over pararescuemen and Brig. Gen. Jack L. Briggs, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, during a training mission at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Sept. 24, 2010. The training mission provided a glimpse of what the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron brings to the fight and the capabilities it provides to combat commanders.
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.


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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