By LOLITA C. BALDOR | The Associated Press
Washington » Parked around the airstrip at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland are more than a dozen massive C-5A Galaxy transport planes. There is no money to fly them, repair them or put pilots in the cockpits, but Congress rejected the Air Force’s bid to retire them.
So, in the weeks and months ahead, crews will tow the planes around the Texas tarmac a bit to make sure the tires don’t rot, then send them back into exile until they can finally get permission to commit the aging aircraft to the boneyard.
Idle aircraft and pricey ship deployments underscore the contradictions and conflicts as Congress orders the Pentagon to slash $487 billion in spending over the next 10 years and another $41 billion in the next six months. Yet, at the same time, lawmakers are forcing the services to keep ships, aircraft, military bases, retiree benefits and other programs that defense leaders insist they don’t want, can’t afford or simply won’t be able to use. The Associated Press interviewed senior military leaders involved in the ongoing analysis of the budget and its impact on the services and compiled data on the costs and programs from Defense Department documents.
“Parochial political interests” » The Pentagon long has battled with Congress over politically sensitive spending cuts. But this year, military officials say Congress’ refusal to retire ships and aircraft means the Navy and Air Force are spending roughly $5 billion more than they would if they were allowed to make the cuts. In some cases Congress restored funds to compensate for the changes, but the result overall was lost savings.
In other cases, frustrated military leaders quietly complained that they were being forced to furlough civilians, ground Air Force training flights and delay or cancel ship deployments to the Middle East and South America, while Congress refuses to accept savings in other places that could ease those pains.
Along the eastern seaboard, two Navy cruisers — the USS Anzio in Norfolk, Va., and the USS Vicksburg in Mayport, Fla. — were scheduled for retirement this year but both are now sitting pierside. Navy leaders will soon schedule the ships for significant repairs and begin readying their crews so they can go back into service.
Altogether, Congress is requiring the Navy to keep seven cruisers and two amphibious warships in service, eliminating the $4.3 billion the retirements would have saved over the next two years.
“A lot of it comes down to parochial political interests,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “No member of Congress wants to have a base closed in their district or to have a fighter squadron relocated out of their district.”
“Congress steps in” » Members of Congress argue that they believe the Pentagon sometimes makes bad decisions and other times may purposely target programs that have broad support.
“Certainly that has been a pattern, they’ve cut Guard and Reserves in areas where it’s clearly unwise and Congress steps in to put the money in,” said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee.
While the Navy sought to retire the seven ships, the Air Force wanted to save more than $600 million by retiring C-130 and C-5A cargo aircraft, three B-1 bombers and 18 high-altitude Global Hawk surveillance drones.
Congress disagreed, adding various requirements that the Navy and Air Force maintain the ships and aircraft, and in some cases added money to the budget to cover them. Fifteen of the C-5A Galaxy aircraft are at Lackland, where crews are getting in some flights now preparing for the retirement, while 11 are at Martinsburg, W.Va., and are flown by the Air National Guard there.
A senior Air Force official said the service determined that it didn’t need all of the aging aircraft. And it pushed to cut the Global Hawks because defense officials determined that the U-2 spy plane, first produced more than 50 years ago, was better suited for the high-altitude surveillance job and would cost less money.
The official also noted that while lawmakers rejected plans to retire the Galaxy aircraft, congressional appropriators did not add back enough money to pay for the fuel or the manpower to fly them. Similarly, the three B-1 bombers will move into backup status and likely will be used infrequently. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the budget, so requested anonymity.
The decision to block retirement of some C-130s, however, reveals how narrow, yet critical, the political interests can be. Pennsylvania lawmakers declared victory last month when they reversed the decision to retire eight C-130s and shut down the 911th Airlift Wing near Pittsburgh. Local officials and business owners argued that the base, which uses space at Pittsburgh International Airport, provides an economic boost to the entire community.
Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey, a Democrat, lobbied Pentagon leaders and fellow lawmakers to keep the wing. They argued in a letter to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that “the 911th is a very efficient and cost effective installation” and that closing it could be a waste of taxpayer dollars.