Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered the ultimate insult for a weapons system.
He dismissed the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a twin-engine, straight-wing jet aircraft developed by Fairchild-Republic Co. in the early the 1970s as “a 40-year old, single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield.
The Pentagon, struggling to adjust to deep cuts in its budget, wants to get rid of the antiquated aircraft. For now, Congress disagrees.
Replacing the aircraft with F-35 fighter jets would save $3.5 billion over the next five years, according to Hagel. However, lawmakers last year prohibited the Defense Department from even planning to retire many of the A-10 warplanes.
Speaking last week ahead of the fiscal 2015 budget President Obama sent to Congress on Tuesday, Pentagon officials said the A-10 is being targeted for phase-out. Defense experts who have grown accustomed to the relentless tension between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill over the fate of expensive weapons systems anticipate another big fight this year over the A-10 and other programs.
Contracts for most weapons systems and military vehicles are distributed throughout the country in order to spread the wealth and the possibility of more lawmakers voting to keep programs—whether they’re needed or not. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the weapons are useful to a modern army. It only counts if they create jobs and help grow a state’s GDP.
Regardless, the Pentagon also wants to reduce or eliminate spending for several other costly procurement programs for fiscal 2015, meaning the next battle will come this year with lawmakers who want to preserve or increase much of that funding.
Modernizing certain tanks is one of those perennial battles.
Congress last year authorized funding for continued upgrades of the M1 Abrams tank, manufactured in Lima, Ohio, by General Dynamics Corp. The initial House bill called for $168 million in fiscal 2014, while the Senate measure did not authorize the additional funding. The two chambers settled on $90 million for a program the Pentagon never requested.
The Defense Department isn’t keen on refurbishing the existing tanks, which were first introduced during the Cold War. Refraining from upgrades, though, would reduce supply orders to military contractors and subcontractors scattered across several congressional districts.
Military helicopters also benefitted last year from Congress’ power of the purse. Lawmakers added $75 million to the Pentagon’s $96.2 million funding request last year for light utility helicopters made by EADS North America Inc. While the Pentagon requested 10 copters, Congress wanted more.
“Anything the Pentagon wants to get rid of, there is some constituency that’s willing to fight for it,” said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “You see time and time again the Pentagon is actually being forced to take some weapons systems that they don’t need.”
The $3.9 trillion budget Obama sent to Congress yesterday would allot $496 billion to the Pentagon for the fiscal year that begins next Oct. 1 and result in a 4 percent decrease, or $3.8 billion, in procurement spending compared with fiscal 2014 levels. At the same time, “readiness” spending may fill some of that gap.
While funding for military equipment and hardware is higher than it was in 10 years ago, spending levels have declined significantly after exceeding $160 billion in fiscal 2008, according to figures from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Even though military funding would increase under the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 proposal when factoring in overseas operations and national security programs, the procurement decline is drawing criticism from members of Congress who say the U.S. shouldn’t be cutting back when other nations are extending their reach.
With uncertainty about a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan and the growing tensions over Russia’s military advances in Ukraine’s Crimea region, some lawmakers say this is an especially bad time for Obama to be downsizing the military.
“I share the broad dismay about the shrinking might of the military reflected in this budget,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon said in a statement yesterday. “While we cut nearly one fifth of our defense resources, Russia and China are arming at an alarming rate – Russia's military spending is up roughly 30 percent and China's has more than doubled in recent years.”
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