It’s become an annual rite of spring in Washington, D.C., as politicians haggle over how to cut federal spending. But real cuts are hard to make, especially when powerful constituencies are involved. Case in point: Defense spending. The Obama administration has ordered the Pentagon to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget in the coming years, yet the Defense Department and Congress find themselves at odds over what should be cut. So as has happened many times in recent years, the Pentagon is recommending cuts to weapons programs it deems unnecessary, only to see congressmen — worried about jobs and defense contracts in their home districts — overrule DoD recommendations and budget money for the programs anyway. Congress, not the military, gets the final say in spending, so military leaders are often saddled with weapons and programs they do not want — and the budget deficit continues to grow. Here are five examples of this phenomenon from the fiscal year 2013 budget and other recent years.
5. Block 30 Global Hawk
This unmanned drone has been in service since 1998 and has performed well as a surveillance platform in a number of different theaters. However, it has not met Air Force expectations that it could replace the venerable and still quite effective U-2 spy plane. Although the Air Force may still be interested in acquiring some of the next generation of Global Hawks, it does not want any more of the current model. For the fiscal year 2013 budget, the House Armed Services Committee added $260 million to keep 18 Block 30 Global Hawks in the air.
4. Boeing C-17 Cargo Plane
Cargo planes such as the C-17 are generally an underappreciated asset. They give the military unprecedented freedom to deliver cargo and personnel to distant outposts and battlefields. The Air Force says it has enough C-17s and in fact stopped ordering them in 2006. But every year, Congress authorized funding to build new C-17s (at $250 million apiece), as the program helps support some 25,000 jobs in 44 states. In early 2012, Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, reported to the committee that in 2011 the Air Force “had 44 more C-17s than needed. These C-17s were earmarked by the Appropriations Committees without authorization and at a cost to the taxpayer of over $13 billion.” Although political calculations can intrude into these situations, it is also true that the Air Force has historically shunned cargo planes and other mundane assets in favor of sexier fighter jets and bombers. The C-17 has certainly proven its value during the War on Terror.
3. East Coast Missile Defense System
In early 2012, Gen. Charles Jacoby, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress that a proposed missile defense system designed to protect the East Coast from intercontinental ballistic missile attack is unnecessary. In an era of WMD and missile technology proliferation this is debatable, but what is not debatable is the cost; the House Armed Services Committee in May 2012 approved the project anyway, at a cost that could top $5 billion in the next three years. Some analysts believe even that figure significantly underestimates the ultimate cost of the system. While rogue countries like North Korea and Iran cannot hit the U.S. mainland today, some day they will have the capability. As supporters of the program point out, a complex missile defense system cannot be put into place overnight, so unfortunately you need to have it before you actually need it.
2. M1 Abrams Tank
The M1 Abrams tank is an expensive weapons system. It is also the most devastating ground attack weapon ever put on the battlefield. The Army argued in 2011 that it did not need any new tanks; Congress turned a deaf ear and provided $255 million in additional funding for 42 more M1A2 Abrams tanks. Lighter, cheaper, wheeled vehicles such as the Stryker have been deployed as an alternative to heavy main battle tanks and they have performed well. However, the Army has traditionally been skeptical of so-called light tanks. For fiscal year 2013, Congress appears poised to approve between $160 million and $250 million to keep producing Abrams tanks, despite Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno’s statement to Congressional leaders earlier this year that, “The conundrum we have is that we don’t need the tanks … these are additional tanks that we don’t need.”
1. A-10 Thunderbolt
The A-10 began service in the 1970s and it is No. 1 on the list because it has repeatedly earned its keep and has become one of the best friends of ground troops. Senior Air Force officials initially hated the concept of the A-10, but strong Congressional support succeeded in adding the plane, nicknamed the “Warthog,” to the U.S. arsenal. Now, the Air Force is looking beyond the A-10 toward other projects, such as a new stealth bomber to replace the B-2. The Air Force wants to cut five A-10 squadrons and replace them with the F-35, which was not designed specifically for the ground attack role. The A-10’s heavy armor, 30 mm, seven-barrel Gatling gun and ability to loiter over the battlefield makes it the best choice. The proposed reduction in the number of operational A-10s would deal a blow to several states, including Michigan, where the A-10 has a powerful friend — Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some observers believe Levin and other politicians’ opposition to reducing the number of A-10s in operation is a political decision to benefit their constituents, but even if that is the reason, it is hard to dispute the tactical military value of the planes.