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.”
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.
During a recent breakfast with reporters, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Congress’ reluctance to accept tough choices leaves her with few options of her own choosing, along with some alternatives she doesn’t want — and a future she views as unrealistic.
The main thing she can do is keep advancing her message, she said.
“Part of our duty is, we have to keep telling the story,” she said.
The story of the A-10, James said, is this: “We love the A-10. It’s been a terrific aircraft. Given the budget situation we face, given the age, given the survivability, given the other aircraft we have, we feel on balance it needs to be retired. It will save billions of dollars if we retire it.
“What we have said to the opponents of the proposal is, ‘If we’re not allowed to retire the A-10, please, please, please, you must give us the money to add back,’” she continued. “‘And by the way, when you find the money, don’t take it out of readiness. We really, really need to get our readiness levels up.’”
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the defense authorization bill (S 2410) would take the money for the A-10s out of operations and maintenance — which equals readiness, she said.
And the need for cuts is real, thanks to budget caps.
“Members on the defense committees are very pro-defense. There are people who still say we’re going to get rid of sequestration, it’s going to work out,” James said. “I want to be hopeful too.” However, she said, “I’ve also got to be realistic, broadly about this.”
If Congress doesn’t retire the A-10, one alternative, James said, would be to “take a few aircraft here, a few aircraft there.” But, she said, “We have some of that as well in the [fiscal 2015] budget. That hasn’t gone over very well either.”
While she doesn’t anticipate Congress embracing base closures this year, James said the Pentagon is likely to continue making the argument that shuttering installations is a necessary move that ultimately saves money.
“As a person who came out of business, the last things a corporation would do is spend money on facilities that are no longer needed,” she said. “You would never, never, never run a business this way. I realize government is not a business. But there are certain principles that make good common sense.”
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.