Congressional conservatives cannot have it both ways. They cannot, on the one hand, complain about waste in the defense budget and support the $1 trillion in defense budget reductions imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and, on the other hand, require the Department of Defense to retain tens of billions of dollars in excess force structure, weapons systems, bases and personnel. The BCA has already imposed a $500 billion cut with another $500 billion to be eliminated under sequestration between 2013 and 2022 unless equivalent reductions are found elsewhere in the federal budget. Responding to the BCA, the Pentagon has proposed a series of sensible, if painful, reductions in force structure, excess infrastructure and pay and benefits. The Air Force wants to save nearly $4 billion annually by retiring its entire fleet of A-10 close air support aircraft. It will eliminate hundreds of additional aircraft if sequestration reductions must be absorbed. The Navy proposes eliminating the seven oldest Ticonderoga-class cruisers and, under sequestration, not refueling the USS George Washington (CVN-73). The Army is planning to cut some 150,000 active-duty personnel and wants to reallocate its aviation assets between the Active and Reserve Components. Everyone supports a new round of base closures and modest changes to pay and benefits for both future and retired service personnel.
The reaction by Congress to most of these proposals has been decidedly negative. A coalition led by Senators Kelly Ayotte, Saxby Chambliss and John McCain have come out forcefully against retiring the A-10s. Their central arguments are that the A-10 is the military’s most effective and lowest cost close air support platform and that the same savings can be found elsewhere in the Air Force without putting ground forces at increased risk. In 2012, Congress prohibited the Navy from retiring older cruisers and several members are questioning the wisdom of not refueling the USS Washington. Senators and Congressmen, including Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Joe Wilson, have been exploring the idea of taking authority for reductions to the National Guard out of the hands of the Army leadership in favor of a national commission. It is assumed that such a commission would roll back some or all of the proposed changes. No one on Capitol Hill has had anything nice to say about base closures or reforms to pay and benefits. Nor is Congress willing to consider wholesale reductions to the laws it has imposed on the defense acquisition system which cause programs to take years longer than necessary and cost billions more than they should.
The Services have repeatedly warned Congress that if it stands in the way of sensible reforms and cuts the consequences for the military will be worse. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh, testified that while he would like to retain the A-10s, by cutting that fleet it can save other, more versatile and strategically valuable fighters. The overall price of saving the A-10 is a less capable Air Force. The failure to allow reductions in excess infrastructure and modest reforms to military and retiree compensation will mean fewer resources to devote to equipping, training and supporting current service personnel.
The solution is simple. If Congress wants it all, that is to keep existing force structure and platforms, preserve defense entitlements, hold onto unnecessary infrastructure and retain cumbersome and costly acquisition processes and procedures, then it must repeal sequestration. At this point, the main source of waste and abuse in defense expenditures seems to be Congress itself. It makes no sense for members to loudly proclaim their belief that their pet programs can be protected through extracting savings from other parts of the defense budget and then hamstring the Pentagon when it proposes precisely such alternatives.
It is true that some members of Congress such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon have tried to find a way out of the corner into which the legislative branch has painted itself. Others such as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and HASC Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry have called for increases in defense spending, but not for repealing sequestration per se and, as a consequence, allowing domestic discretionary spending also to rise. Although I would prefer the Ryan budget, if it cannot pass and Congress insists on preventing the defense department from making sensible changes in force structure, infrastructure and compensation, then the only alternative is to repeal the sequestration provisions of the BCA.
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