Air Force Tries to Save Cash, Congress Won’t Let It
Posted at 10:21 a.m. on June 18, 2014
An A-10 Thunderbolt parked on a tarmac in the Czech Republic where it was taking part in joint NATO military exercises in 2012. AFP PHOTO/ RADEK MICA (Radek Mica/AFP/GettyImages)
Everywhere Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James turns to cut her budget, Congress puts up a roadblock. Trying to get rid of the A-10: “So far it’s not gone over tremendously well,” she said. A proposal to shutter bases via the Base Realignment and Closure process: “I would give that zero probability of passing this year.” The notion of slicing aircraft here and there: “That hasn’t gone over very well either.”
It leaves James with few options of her own choosing, she told defense reporters at a breakfast Wednesday, 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.”
The Senate and House Armed Services panels, in their fiscal 2015 defense authorization bills, moved to block the retirement of the A-10, also known as the “Warthog,” a close-air support plane for ground forces used to attack tanks and other enemy ground targets. The House’s version of the annual defense spending bill, being considered on the floor Wednesday, did not block the Defense Department’s A-10 plans, but there could be an amendment that renews the fight to do so in that legislation.
“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,” James said. “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 authorization bill would take the money out of operations and maintenance — which equals readiness, she said. The House authorization bill has said it should come out of the war-related Overseas Contingency Account, but James wasn’t sure if that would hold up.
And the need for cuts is real thanks to budget caps put in place in 2011 and the related sequestration that cuts budgets across-the-board.
“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. My job is, I’ve also got to be realistic broadly about this.”
(Side note: The Quadrennial Defense Review released this year by the department has been criticized as unrealistic for projecting spending that goes $115 billion — through fiscal 2016 to 2019 — beyond what the department could spend under current law.)
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 fy15 budget. That hasn’t gone over very well either.”
While she doesn’t anticipate Congress embracing the BRAC process this year, she said the Pentagon is likely to continue making the argument.
“As a person who came out of business, the last things a corporation would do is spend money on facilities that are no longer 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 make good common sense.”