A bipartisan group of 300 House members last week defied the wishes of both the Obama administration and Appropriations Committee leaders by voting to keep the Air Force’s venerable fleet of A-10 Warthog close-air support planes.
Michigan Republican Candice S. Miller’s amendment to the $570.4 billion defense spending bill (HR 4870) included no money to actually operate and maintain the fleet of 283 A-10s, which the Air Force wants to retire to save a whopping $4.2 billion over the next five years.
Instead, the language the House adopted merely prohibits the Air Force from using any money in the spending measure to retire or divest itself of the A-10s, which were built between 1975 and 1983. That essentially leaves the already cash-strapped military with a bill that could total several hundred million dollars next year alone — and no specific way of paying it.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and ranking Democrat Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana, opposed the Miller amendment, as did Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and ranking Democrat Adam Smith of Washington.
Ordinarily, such opposition would be more than enough to squash any amendment. But lawmakers in both parties have resisted most of the Pentagon’s cost-saving requests, even as the department girds for sequester-level budget caps that will go back into effect starting in fiscal 2016 unless Congress and the White House can agree to stall them.
Accustomed to seemingly limitless military spending during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lawmakers are loath to make the tough choices necessary to bring down the Pentagon’s total spending, especially if the reductions affect people, businesses or bases in their states and districts. Plus, the A-10 is popular with ground troops who have benefitted from its thunderous, low-altitude support.
During debate on the Pentagon appropriations bill, Visclosky cautioned that Congress needs to make hard decisions about weapons systems and infrastructure and should keep its options open for cost savings, rather than balking at every proposal that comes down the pike. Aside from the A-10 retirements, lawmakers have opposed a slew of other requests, including a new base-closure round to begin in 2017, changes to the military’s health care system and limiting the military pay raise to 1 percent next year.
“We have got to stop saying ‘no’ to everything,” Visclosky said. “We have got to start saying ‘yes’ to some things.”
Shrinking Budgets for War
If the A-10 language survives House-Senate conference negotiations later this year — and with widespread and bipartisan support for the planes in both chambers, that is a distinct possibility — the Air Force could tap war-related money in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is not subject to stringent spending limits, to pay bills associated with the aircraft.
That’s how the House-passed defense authorization bill dealt with the issue, over the objections of both McKeon and Smith, by setting aside $635 million in the war account for the A-10s.
But the war budget isn’t a long-term solution to the military’s budget dilemma. The Overseas Contingency Operations accounts are expected to decline quickly as operations in Afghanistan wind down, and using them as an overflow valve for the defense budget will become more and more difficult.