By Walter Pincus
Defense Department officials and Congress continue to disagree on how to save money in the fiscal 2015 defense budget.
In most instances, Pentagon officials have the facts and politicians generally have concern about the effects on their constituents.
Here are two examples from recent Capitol Hill hearings:
●Retiring the 40-year-old A-10 “Warthog,” the slow-flying, close-air-support jet fighter-bomber that was designed to kill Warsaw Pact tanks, may be the most controversial. The Pentagon’s plan last year to replace of all its 325 A-10s with the newer, still-being-developed, costly F-35 was blocked by Congress, at least through the end of 2014. So the Pentagon is trying again.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III, a former A-10 pilot, set the stage March 14 before the House Armed Services Committee, saying: “Close air support is not an afterthought to me. It is not going to be a secondary mission in the United States Air Force. But close air support is not an aircraft — it’s a mission — and we do it very, very well with a number of airplanes today.”
Welsh said that retiring the A-10s would save $3.7 billion over the next five years and an additional $500 million for planned upgrades if the A-10s were to be retained. After studying other cost-saving ideas, he said, “cutting the A-10 fleet was . . . the lowest-risk option from an operational perspective.”
Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), whose district includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, home to A-10s since 1975, pointed out that he had “31 colleagues here in the House and in the Senate, both parties represented, who have fought from the beginning to say let’s take another look at this decision or proposal on the A-10s.” With the A-10s retired, he asked, what aircraft are “U.S. troops going to have when engaging the enemy on the fluid battlefield with moving targets below 1,500 feet and weather ceilings?”
Air Force Secretary Deborah James said “80 percent of what we have done in close air support in Afghanistan has been by aircraft other than A-10s,” starting with F-16s.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), whose district includes Whiteman Air Force Base, which houses an Air Force Reserve A-10 squadron, noted that the airplane is the most cost-efficient in flying hours.
Welsh said the Army wants the Air Force to perform deep attacks that stop an enemy’s resupply and eliminate second-echelon forces.
“The A-10 cannot do any of those other missions,” Welsh said. “Other airplanes that we have doing close air support today can, and as we look at what we have to cut, we have to balance across our mission areas. That’s the debate.”
Hartzler suggested that savings equal to the amount gained by retiring the A-10 could be accomplished by “a 6 percent reduction in the Air Force’s civilians through attrition.”
James replied that it would require “an additional, I think, 10,000 civilians to equate to the same amount of money, roughly speaking, as the A-10.” That 10,000 figure would be on top of already planned civilian reductions in headquarters staffs and would involve those doing depot maintenance on aircraft.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday, Welsh offered a more personal take on the A-10.
“You can’t dress up a fourth-generation airplane, our legacy fighters, and make it competitive with an F-35. . . . And so the real question for me . . . is do I want to look the moms and dads of America in the eye and say it’s okay that your son and daughter will be flying that older airplane, because they’re really good and . . . we’ll win the war anyway,” he said.
“More of them will die,” he said. “I’m not willing to have that conversation. The number-one superpower in the world shouldn’t.”
●Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) raised another issue during Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Navy and Marine Corps fiscal 2015 budget authorization bill. Cruz and others have questioned what he called “billions of dollars on alternative fuel research and programs at DOD that I think are far less essential than maintaining our readiness and ability to defend our national security interests.”
Cruz, who represents an oil-producing state, called attention to the Navy spending $170 million on algae fuel, which he said “costs four times as much as regular fuel, which means potentially $120 million was spent unnecessarily.”
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus responded, “Senator, now is exactly the time that we have to diversify our energy sources.”
He said increases in fuel prices cost the Navy an additional $1 billion in both 2011 and 2012 and “if we don’t get an American-made, more stably based source of fuel, if we don’t get some competition into the fuel, we’re looking at fewer soldiers, fewer sailors, fewer platforms.”
Mabus also said that the $170 million mentioned was for alternative fuels and that the Navy is working with four companies “that are obligated to provide us with 163 million gallons of biofuel by 2016 at less than $3.50 a gallon.”
The Navy, he said, was not researching algae. “The research has been done,” Mabus said. “The production is there. We are moving toward changing the way we use fuel. We’re doing energy efficiency as well.”
Cruz was not satisfied. He said that at an earlier hearing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had “characterized the algae-fuel program, and also programs such as a wind farm in Alaska that was built where there’s no wind, as, quote, ‘luxuries.’ ”
Cruz told Mabus, “It sounds like you don’t agree with Secretary Hagel’s characterization.”
Mabus replied that he didn’t hear Hagel’s comments, “but I’m confident that, in these energy terms, that he did not state that they were luxuries.”