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Congressional Conundrum: Cut Weapons Programs Now or Later?

May. 11, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
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Weapons Programs Protected: US Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., right, warns that if Congress doesn't make more weapons cuts now, it will create larger budget problems in the future. Last week, several Pentagon proposals to cut programs in order to stay within budget caps were shot down. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — Rep. Adam Smith grimaced and appeared to sigh. The nightmare scenario he had warned about for weeks was playing out all around him. And the House Armed Services Committee ranking member could do nothing to stop it.

The Washington Democrat had just pushed an amendment that aimed to essentially kill a Republican one that would block the Navy from sidelining 11 cruisers to save money. As he had for some time about the full list of cuts proposed by the US military, Smith warned his colleagues that cuts today would free up funding for new weapon systems later.

Smith contended that resisting the Pentagon’s proposed weapons program cuts would create only a more dismal budget situation for the military next year, and the next, and five years down the road. Most of his colleagues were not having it. One, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., called Smith’s amendment and argument “ridiculous.”

Wittman and other members shot back that fewer platforms now would not deliver major savings, and would leave the Navy less ready to fight now, an argument most House Armed Services Committee members supported. The largely GOP-written bill protects weapon programs now, even if that means inciting possible budgetary chaos later.

“The House authorizers have declared themselves irrelevant for the second year in a row,” said Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration. “This is simply, ‘Over to you, appropriators.’ They have managed to avoid any of the hard choices by basically saying, ‘No.’ ”

Smith said on May 8 that “this bill ... neglects to make some of the difficult choices necessary to confront our long-term fiscal challenges.

“I understand none of the choices we are faced with are popular, or what any of us want, but that does not give us an excuse to undermine our military readiness,” Smith said. “As we move to the floor and then to conference with the Senate, I encourage my colleagues to look beyond parochial interests and focus on what is good for our country.”

As House Armed Services subcommittees released portions of the legislation, members blocked or reversed the armed services’ cost-cutting proposals. That trend continued as the full panel continued work on the bill on May 7 and 8.

The theme of the legislation was: Protect every weapon system possible. That also goes for attempts to cut compensation and troop numbers. And the future budgetary consequences be damned. Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., raised eyebrows when he released his version of the legislation on May 5, which transferred billions into weapons accounts — mostly by raiding coffers used for service contracts.

“The House authorizers live in La-La Land. They just pretend the Budget Control Act and sequestration is just going to magically go away,” Adams said. “To them, it’s all sunshine and roses, and they really believe there’s going to be more money for defense. Well, there’s not.

“The House Armed Services Committee is living in a hermetically sealed box, and they believe everything inside their own box. It’s just not that way in the real world,” Adams added. “The appropriators cannot afford to do that. They have to live with real numbers and real choices.”

The Armed Services Committee — whose members lead Congress in receiving defense industry campaign contributions and who hail from districts with large military industrial complex footprints — so shielded programs that there were few of the latter on a list of “winners and losers” sent by one industry consultant.

Jim McAleese, the principal at Virginia-based McAleese and Associates, counted the F-35 fighter program among the winners. To be sure, it received few funding restrictions in the legislation and got nary a mention during the 13-hour full committee mark up session, despite its many troubles.

McAleese’s winners’ list was long. He noted the panel opted to shift $796.2 million from other accounts in order to refuel the aircraft carrier George Washington and maintain an 11-carrier fleet. A big winner.

Another winner? The Raytheon-made Tomahawk missile, which would get an $82 million funding infusion for 96 missiles under the House Armed Services Committee bill. Yet another winner was the Boeing-made EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft. The Growler program would get an added $450 million — and the committee passed an amendment “encouraging” the Navy to increase its build rate for its sister jet, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

There were many more winners, according to McAleese: The Army’s AH-64, UH-60 and CH-47 helicopter programs — meaning Boeing and Sikorsky also would be winners if the House panel’s moves are included in the final version of the bill. Notably, McAleese could find only one “loser” in the entire Army procurement section of the 2015 bill: the Common Missile Warning System (Raytheon).

Even the Air Force’s attempt to retire the A-10 and U-2 fleets was shot down.

In fact, in categories such as Army and Air Force missile procurement, McAleese found “no visible losers.” And in more than one category, he could locate only “modest losers.”

Perhaps the biggest losers would be firms that provide the military will the gamut of services. McKeon’s proposed program-protecting transfers would take $817.5 million from accounts used to pay for service contracts.

McKeon was the biggest proponent of protecting programs. But, multiple times last week, even he warned this is the last year in which lawmakers have the option. ■


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