By William Hartung
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) put its mark on the Pentagon budget last week. The results were a bonanza for weapons contractors.
As John Bennett noted in a piece in Defense News, the common thread running through the House bill was “Protect every weapon system possible.” HASC ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA) offered the following critique of his own committee’s markup of the administration’s Pentagon budget proposal:
I understand none of the choices we are faced with are popular, or what any of us want, but that does not give us an excuse to undermine our military readiness… As we move to the floor and then to conference with the Senate, I encourage my colleagues to look beyond parochial interests and focus on what is good for our country.
The HASC’s budgetary machinations came despite relentless rhetoric from key members like HASC Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) about the dangers of a reduction in readiness — the ability of troops to be properly trained, equipped and supported. When push came to shove, McKeon’s committee opted to fund pork barrel projects that have nothing to do with preparing U.S forces for current or future challenges.
But whatever problems the House bill may have from the point of view of avoiding tough choices, for Pentagon contractors like Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin it is the gift that keeps on giving.
For example, despite the Lockheed Martin F-35 combat aircraft’s continuing cost and performance problems, the committee left the program — which is on track to be the most expensive weapons project ever undertaken by the Pentagon — untouched. And it added funding for Boeing’s EA-18G “Growler” electronic warfare plane — a transparent effort to keep Boeing’s St. Louis-area production line open despite the fact that the Pentagon sees no need for the plane. And in the one area where the committee’s contradiction of the Pentagon plan made sense — saving the capable A-10 attack plane from being mothballed — HASC failed to make the logical tradeoff of cutting F-35s slated for the same mission.
McKeon and his cohorts also propped up Navy programs that the service had hoped to drop to make room for other priorities. Moves in this direction included bucking the Pentagon’s plans by authorizing nearly $800 million to refuel the aircraft carrier George Washington and preventing the shelving of 11 Navy cruisers. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), a staunch ally of the shipbuilding industry, called Rep. Adam Smith’s quite reasonable effort to block the cruiser amendment “ridiculous.”
In a case study of fantasy budgeting, the committee proposed creating a separate “national security” account outside the Navy’s official shipbuilding budget to pay for a new line of ballistic missile submarines that could cost up to $8 billion each. The ships would be built in Connecticut by General Dynamics and in Virginia by Huntington Ingalls. But while the maneuver is meant to take pressure off of the Navy’s oversubscribed shipbuilding budget, it could be a distinction without a difference unless HASC can explain exactly where future funding for this massive program would come from.
The House’s budgetary maneuvers will have an impact on the Army as well. If the committee has its way, General Dynamics will receive funding to keep open its Ohio production line for the M-1 tank, in opposition to the Army’s repeated efforts to end the program.
The distorted results of the HASC’s efforts are rooted in good old-fashioned pork barrel politics. Plants in the districts of key members are probably the weapons industry’s strongest political lever, followed closely behind by the millions in campaign contributions members of the HASC receive from military contractors. But these time-tested tools may not be enough for the industry to get its way. Under current budget projections, all of the House’s add-ons just won’t fit under the caps set for the next few years.
The real budget fights may not come from the House’s version of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic — stealing from readiness to pay for unneeded weapons systems. They are likely to come on two other fronts.
First, McKeon’s colleagues in the pro-industry lobby — he retires this year — will fight to bust the budget caps and make room for their pet projects. Second, they will join forces with the Pentagon to try to keep the war budget — known in Washington-ese as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO — alive as a slush fund for programs that have no relationship to the war in Afghanistan.
A concerted effort to at least keep current budget caps in place — and preferably lower them — could trump the arms industry’s traditional lobbying techniques, particularly if the OCO account can be restricted to funding specifically designed to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Despite all of their money and influence, the big contractors may have to finally face budgetary reality — if the public pushes for disciplined budgeting that spends money on defending the country, not boosting the bottom lines of arms manufacturers.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.