The Pentagon has proposed cutting the US Air Force's fleet of U-2 spy planes. Without a united front on Capitol Hill to oppose such moves, cuts are more likely. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Widespread opposition has yet to form around any single Pentagon proposal to cut a specific weapon system, indicating most could be implemented despite lawmakers’ protestations on behalf of parochial interests.
Some lawmakers and analysts were quick to dismiss the Pentagon’s 2015 budget plan as dead on arrival. After all, it called for big troop cuts, politically radioactive troop benefit cuts, left some wondering if 11 aircraft carriers are affordable, and cut entire fleets of A-10 attack aircraft and U-2 spy planes.
For lawmakers, slashing the size of the force, as well as retiring aging platforms and not buying as many models of new ones, means jobs will be lost back home. Since voters hear about such plans and expect economic doldrums, it puts incumbent politicians at risk of being voted out.
The conventional wisdom that emerged went something like this: not this budget, not these cuts, not in a congressional election year.
But this is no normal congressional election year.
Spending caps established by a 2011 deficit-reduction law were endorsed and extended under a bipartisan budget plan passed by Congress in December. This means lawmakers cannot simply press committee chairmen and congressional leaders to keep their program alive or a platform in the fleet by inflating the Pentagon’s budget.
To partially or completely roll back a Pentagon proposal, members must find an offset elsewhere within the federal budget. And that means likely cutting something supported by other lawmakers, who just might vote to kill your preferred platform or program instead.
The Pentagon’s proposed budget and its cuts were approved by senior White House officials. But even one of their closest Capitol Hill allies on national security issues acknowledges the spending caps will make it difficult to make changes.
The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said “Congress always makes changes.” Yet, “I think it’ll be more challenging this year because they’re proposing some pretty serious changes and reductions” not easily undone due to the federal budget caps, he added.
Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said GOP and Democratic lawmakers agree that the size of the 2015 Pentagon budget must fit below spending caps agreed to in a bipartisan budget deal passed late last year.
“The debate is around what can you do within that level. Congress doesn’t like some of those things, and there’s plenty of opposition to the personnel changes and other things,” Harrison said. “But if lawmakers want to add back funding … they have to cut somewhere else.
“That means they will have to pick and choose their battles. It’s a zero-sum game,” Harrison said. “Lawmakers will have to find offsetting cuts. I think that means things like the A-10 cuts are going to be a lower priority for members of Congress than the personnel changes, and the end-strength changes, and the troop cuts.”
During hearings about the Pentagon’s 2015 budget plan, lawmakers have, to be sure, objected to weapon system-specific cuts proposed by the Obama administration.
But such objections have almost exclusively been raised through the lens of individual states and districts.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., credited Pentagon officials at a late March hearing for making “tough decisions.”
He then made clear he opposes plans to cut the US Air Force’s airborne warning and control system (AWACS) fleet by seven aircraft. If the administration’s plans are enacted, the fleet would shrink from 31 to 24.
“You made some tough choices in this budget concerning our AWACS fleet, and that’s a pretty low-density but high-use asset that we’re using right now” to monitor Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cole told Defense Department leaders. “And in full disclosure, it’s a parochial concern. Most of those are stationed in my district, at Tinker Air Force Base, so obviously I’ve got a concern there.”
Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, used efforts by China and Russia to build advanced fighter jets to lobby against proposed cuts to the US F-35 buy. She represents the district where F-35s are built.
The implication from Granger, a leader of the Congressional F-35 Caucus, was clear: The US should be buying more of the Lockheed Martin-built stealth jets instead of proposing modest reductions.
The Pentagon is proposing to buy 34 F-35s in its 2015 spending plan, eight fewer than planned.
But few lawmakers without a direct and substantial tie to programs such as AWACS and F-35 have joined members such as Cole and Granger, making the Pentagon’s desired cuts more likely.
And, Harrison said, the spending caps mean additional hardware cuts are likely as the congressional defense panels craft their versions of 2015 Pentagon authorization and appropriations bills.
“Because Congress is likely to add back some things in other areas, you very well might see deeper cuts to acquisition programs than even the Pentagon has proposed,” he said. “Congress usually looks for leftover prior-year money to count as savings. And they can slow down some programs that are having trouble.” ■