Going into a key Senate vote next week, the battle lines over Pentagon spending drew sharper Thursday, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates took aim at lawmakers in a toughly worded speech in Chicago and the House Appropriations Committee rolled out a budget rejecting many of Gates’s cuts.
“If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes,” Gates told his audience at the Economic Club of Chicago.
The former Central Intelligence Agency director bluntly reminded the crowd that he is the same man who used to be criticized for overstating the security threats to the U.S.
“I did not molt from a hawk to a dove on Jan. 20, 2009,” Gates said. And with a White House veto threat in his pocket, he is at least a well-armed legislative hawk. When reporters pointed out that prominent lawmakers would say Congress is the final decision maker on defense, Gates said, “They are if they have 67 votes” — the number needed in the Senate to overcome a presidential veto.
Since outlining his program terminations this spring, Gates has been on the losing end of several votes in House and Senate Armed Services committees. But the Appropriations panels are only now entering the fray, and the Senate faces the first up-or-down floor vote, likely Monday, on Gates’s plan to end production of the F-22 fighter at 187 planes.
If the secretary loses in the Senate, as many expect, that could elevate the role of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who chairs the House Appropriations defense panel and appears open to making deals on the F-22 as well as a truncated version of the Army’s Future Combat Systems as proposed by Gates.
Murtha opted to hold his fire Thursday on a third issue that has been a sore point for Gates: how to proceed on a new aerial refueling tanker for the Air Force. The bill includes $439.6 million for the program, leaving Gates the option of going with either a single-source or a dual-source contract. But the secretary would have to certify by Oct. 1 which course is “the most cost-effective and expeditious tanker replacement strategy.” And the accompanying legislative report spells out Murtha’s case that “it is in the best interest of the taxpayer” to pursue a more rapid replacement program, buying 36 aircraft a year rather than 12 or 15.
“I think they’re beginning to listen to me,” said the chairman, and he clearly hopes to be a deal maker and a partner for Gates — even shedding his own propensity for earmarks. Just 24 are listed for the chairman, for a total cost of $92 million — a better-than-80 percent reduction from this point two years ago.
Given White House veto threats, Murtha concedes Gates will have the upper hand, ultimately, on the F-22. “If they say they are going to veto and we don’t have the votes, we’re going to have to get rid of the damn thing,” Murtha told reporters. And his primary concern is protecting Connecticut allies, like House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, whose district has a major stake in building engines for the F-22.
Thus the $636.3 billion budget unveiled by the House panel Thursday morning includes just $369 million for advanced procurement of 12 F-22s — money that can help keep the engine line open and matches what has been recommended by the House Armed Services Committee. Late Wednesday, Murtha had told POLITICO he was prepared to go even lower, to $236 million, and said Thursday he only adjusted the number back up for fear it would be seen as a “token” sum.
“I don’t want to look too frugal in my old age,” he laughed.
The bigger flash point could be the VH-71 presidential helicopter program, where Murtha is insistent that the government can’t afford to simply walk away from the billions invested without getting some operational aircraft. “You can’t just cancel programs without getting something out of it,” he told reporters. But Gates was merciless in his speech, describing the program as military procurement “run amok” with standards such as allowing the president “to cook dinner while in flight under nuclear attack.”
The cost estimates of salvaging even a handful of aircraft are crushing. Murtha would provide $485 million or $400 million more than requested to try to salvage five to seven of the costly helicopters. But the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, has estimated another $1.5 billion could be needed, a cost reflecting in part the Navy’s tough testing standards for the helicopters. And this will fortify Gates’s argument that taxpayers would be better off if the program were terminated outright.
In his speech in Chicago, Gates went back to what has been a consistent theme: that all defense weapon choices have to be weighed in the context of a new “zero-sum game.”
“My frustration has been with people who argue for a specific weapons system, and they are all people who don’t have to make decisions between competing priorities,” Gates said.
He dismissed those who suggest his cuts are “risky.”
“Those three words — ‘requirements,’ ‘risk’ and ‘analysis’ — are commonly evoked in defense matters. If applied correctly, they help us make sound decisions. I’ve found, however, that more often they have become the holy trinity of business as usual.”
Beyond the high-profile fights, the House bill is striking for the steady stream of plus-ups that would strain any budget.
The measure adds $674 million to buy three more C-17 transports — not requested by Gates — on top of those already added to a wartime spending bill last month. And Murtha allowed that the Navy had told him it was quietly delighted he had funded four instead of three Littoral Combat Ships requested by the administration.
Less happy will be the director of national intelligence, whose budget faces significant cuts. And while strongly supportive of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the House bill trims an estimated $530 million from the administration’s request on the grounds that not all the money would be needed in the upcoming budget year that begins Oct. 1.
Beyond the core Pentagon budget, the bill includes $128.3 billion for ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the new fiscal year. This marks the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that full-year, war-related funding has been included in an annual defense budget, an important change demanded by President Barack Obama.
But Murtha raised a warning flag that more money may still be needed in a spring supplemental next year, given the level of increasing operations in Afghanistan.
“I’m just saying what I think is going to happen. It may not happen, but you have to have an overly optimistic scenario,” he said. “You see what’s happened in Afghanistan. As you press forward, you start to run into resistance. ... That’s the problem you face.”