Defense cuts test lawmakers' resolve on deficits

February 6, 2012

The Associated Press

President Barack Obama's call to shrink the military, shut bases and cancel weapons to meet the demand for budget cuts tests the resolve of lawmakers who came to Washington determined to slash the deficit.

A new national security strategy reflecting an end to decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offers the opportunity to reduce defense spending and government deficits by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 years — but at a cost of thousands of jobs in lawmakers' states and districts.

Democrats as well as Republicans are resisting, looking to protect home turf from California, where the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft is built, to Wisconsin, home to speedy Littoral combat ships, to military installations all across the country.

"It's funny that we want to save money everywhere except when it can bother us," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in an interview. Graham is a member of the Armed Services Committee and one of the few lawmakers who favors another round of domestic base closings.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently outlined a $525 billion budget for next year that's $6 billion less than the current level. The proposal is the first step in the deficit-cutting plan that Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer that calls for a reduction in projected defense spending of $487 billion over 10 years.

"Make no mistake, the savings that we are proposing will impact on all 50 states and many districts, congressional districts, across America," Panetta said at a news conference spelling out the new strategy. "This will be a test, a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or about action."

Obama submits his complete budget proposal to Congress on Feb. 13, but Panetta's preview included enough details to stir alarm on Capitol Hill.

The budget calls for canceling the Air Force's Global Hawk program, a high-altitude unmanned aircraft used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Pentagon said the aircraft's cost at $215 million apiece make it less cost-effective than the existing U-2 spy planes that burst on the scene in the 1950s and were critical in finding Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962.

Northrop Grumman, the aircraft's prime contractor, builds the planes in Palmdale, Calif., located in the district of the House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon.

The aircraft is based at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, Calif., soon to be in the redrawn congressional district of Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, a member of the committee. The program also is one of many that the Air Force manages at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the district of Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, another committee member.

McKeon has criticized the overall military cuts but has not commented specifically on the Global Hawk. The Republican did send a clear message to the Pentagon and the White House when he promised to hold hearings on the budget "keeping in mind that while the president proposes, Congress disposes."

Garamendi questioned the Pentagon's rationale, especially since six months ago it called the Global Hawk a critical program with no alternatives "that will provide acceptable capability to meet the joint military requirement at less cost."

"Now we're going in the other direction and I'm going, 'guys you got some explaining to do. What changed? What is the reason here?" Garamendi, who has been a strong proponent of Beale AFB, said in an interview. He called the U-2 an "incredible machine, but it can't stay over the target for 20 hours. Global Hawk can stay there for a day or more. So explanations are needed."

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's reason at the briefing with Panetta: "That's the fate of things that become too expensive in a resource-constrained environment."

But just a few months ago, the Pentagon had said that "when analyzed in the context of the Global Hawk mission, the U-2 costs $220 million per year more than the Global Hawk."

Panetta also called for slowing the pace of building new ships and speeding up the retirement of older ones. The Pentagon blueprint said it would reduce the purchase of Littoral combat ships, the speedy boats built at shipyards in Wisconsin and Alabama, by two. It didn't provide more specifics.

The ship is built in the city of Marinette on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, and has meant hundreds of jobs in the two states. While Wisconsin has an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, Michigan's jobless rate of 9.3 percent is well above the nation's.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who declined to comment about specifics of the budget proposal. Freshman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., praised the Littoral as a ship that "just keeps us a little more nimble."

Contributing to the nervousness on Capitol Hill — and in the defense industry — is the prospect of deeper cuts in the military. The deficit-cutting supercommittee's failure last fall to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in savings last year means automatic, across-the-board cutsfor defense and domestic programs beginning next January.

For the Pentagon, that would mean an additional $492 billion reduction over a decade on top of the $487 billion.

Top Republican senators have proposed reductions in the federal workforce and a freeze in federal pay to delay the automatic cuts for a year. Both the White House and congressional Democrats have rejected any move to undo the automatic cuts absent a far-reaching deficit-cutting plan.

Jeremy W. Devaney, a senior equity analyst in defense technology for BB&T Capital Markets, said contractors look at Congress and the administration, and "they don't believe sequester is going to happen, but they don't know how it's not going to happen."