By THE EDITORIAL
The Pentagon has for too long been in denial about the changes it will have to make in a world of declining resources, skyrocketing personnel costs and changing global threats. This year, however, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presented a more realistic, though still insufficient, cost-saving budget. Yet Congress seems firmly stuck in the past, loyal to campaign donors and frightened, as always, about local political fallout from closing excess military bases, modifying military compensation, reducing troop levels and cutting nonessential or older weapons.
The first big test of the Hagel approach came last week in the House Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon and the committee were both forced to work within a $496 billion maximum for basic defense spending in 2015 because of budget caps set by Congress. The committee also authorized $79 billion for war financing and $17.9 billion for defense-related nuclear programs, for a total price tag of $600.7 billion. In 2016, the military could face billions of dollars in further reductions if Congress does not lift the caps.
With these and other factors in mind, Mr. Hagel proposed to eliminate the fleet of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft, retire the U-2 spy plane in favor of the remotely piloted Global Hawk and cut maintenance for an aircraft carrier that would be slated for retirement in 2016. The committee, pressed by lobbyists and members in districts where the weapons are built, voted to keep all three.
In addition, the committee approved billions of dollars in funding for the F-35 jet fighter, despite serious capability and development issues. The committee abdicated responsibility for one of the Pentagon’s biggest challenges, pay and benefits. If left unaddressed, they could eventually consume most of the budget and make weapons modernization impossible. The committee did this by rejecting Mr. Hagel’s plans to cap pay raises at 1 percent instead of 1.8 percent, slow the growth of tax-free housing allowances for military personnel and increase health insurance deductibles and some co-payments for retirees and some family members of active servicemen.
Caving to parochial interests, the panel also thwarted a request for a commission to decide on closing unneeded military bases; the Pentagon says 20 percent of its facilities are excess. The committee chairman, Representative Howard (Buck) McKeon of California, said he intended to block another major Hagel initiative — to shrink the Army by 2019 to a total force of between 440,000 and 450,000 troops, from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000. He was frank about hoping “some miracle happens and we get money … next year that we don’t have now.”
Hoping for a miracle is no way to budget. The United States cannot afford the larger force indefinitely, and does not need it. Even with a smaller Army, America’s defenses will remain the world’s most formidable. But the committee’s lack of vision will mean less money for the newer weapons required to confront future threats, and for training and maintenance — thus compromising the military’s readiness to fight.
This is not just a repudiation of the Pentagon’s agenda, but an irresponsible trade-off.
The full House has yet to act, while the Senate is working on its own version of the bill. Congress still has time to responsibly rebalance America’s military forces, but doing so will require reversing the inclination to always say yes to whatever the lobbyists and donors want.