Chairman of the US House Armed Services Committee Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., left, and Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., talk to reporters. Smith has urged acceptance of some proposed administration weapon cuts. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — A key US House Democrat on Thursday urged his colleagues to embrace some of the Obama administration’s proposed weapon program cuts, arguing the savings will allow the military to buy new platforms and remain ready for war.
House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith of Washington also said it is unlikely Congress will approve a White House plan to inflate the Pentagon’s annual budget by more than $25 billion next year.
“If we don’t accept some cuts, we will put ourselves in an untenable situation … down the road,” Smith said at a Thursday breakfast event on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Without allowing some of the administration’s proposed cuts, such as retiring the A-10 attack plane fleet, “we won’t be able to sustain 11 carriers” or buy as many other new combat platforms in coming years, he said.
“Resisting those things puts us in a difficult position down the road,” Smith said.
“The worst thing [lawmakers] can do is protect program after program after program … because the first thing to go in that scenarios is readiness,” he said, saying that will mean the military will “train less, fly less.”
The result means that “slowly, you create that hollow force that everyone said they didn’t want,” he said.
But this is precisely how HASC’s version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is shaping up, he said.
“We’re scrambling to find $700 million” to refuel an aircraft carrier, which would keep 11 in the Navy’s fleet, Smith said. And panel members are looking for ways to keep alive the Air Force’s A-10 fleet, which would require a $400 million offset in fiscal 2015.
Smith called that a “daunting challenge” because if A-10 proponents score a victory in 2015, “the costs to keep it are about $3.5 billion.”
“We would need to find the other $3.1 billion down the road,” Smith said. “So what do we do in FY 16?”
A-10 proponents say the venerable attack plane is the US military’s most lethal close air support aircraft, and has saved countless American lives in Afghanistan. They warn about a two-year gap between the A-10’s 2019 full retirement date and the 2021 date of its replacement, the F-35, joining the Air Force fleet.
The way Smith sees it, to remain within spending caps set in 2011 and extended in December’s two-year, bipartisan budget deal — while also ensuring there are ample dollars for defense later this decade to buy new weapons — members should not try to “fight all of these cuts” right now.
“The big problem we have now is we are avoiding many of these big decisions and scrambling,” he said. “We’re going to run out of floor space. … When you run out of space, you’re in a really bad situation.”
Republicans, such as HASC Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, on Monday did say that more Pentagon spending is necessary annually because the world is more dangerous than ever. They typically cite the ongoing al-Qaeda threat, recent Russian aggression and China’s military build up.
Democrats, for the most part, believe those threats can be met with annual Pentagon budgets projected to soon breach the $500 billion level, even if the next eight of those yearly defense budgets are trimmed by sequestration.
Meantime, Smith also poured cold water on a White House proposal to inflate the Pentagon’s final 2015 funding level by $26 billion. The White House offered offsets from elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for that and a separate plan to inflate domestic spending by around $30 billion next year.
“It doesn’t appear Congress is going to take them up on that,” Smith said of the White House plan.
The Pentagon and defense sector are slowly accepting that the era of automatic, across-the-board defense cuts is here to stay. Smith reiterated that on Thursday.
“I don’t know anyone who’s optimistic about getting rid of the remaining eight years of sequestration,” he said. “The White House won’t get that [$26] billion, and in fact, it’s likely to get substantially less.”