The New, Improved Earmarks

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Navy photo / MCS 2nd Class Mike DiMestico

Congress is getting ready to tell Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to keep his grubby, budget-cutting fingers off programs like this Ticonderoga-class cruiser.

Good-government groups and others without financial stakes involved have long criticized lawmakers for adding “earmarks” to defense bills – boosting certain accounts, or at least ordering the Pentagon to spend money on this or that pet project. (It’s always struck Battleland as somewhat odd that the folks who oppose earmarking are basically saying “Let the Pentagon do what it wants, because it knows best,” which generally isn’t their mindset.)

Anyway, you know things are getting tough in Pentagon budgetland when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta complains about the pending 2013 defense authorization bill not because of add-ons by lawmakers, but because of keep-ons.

As in, The Pentagon has done this in my district so long we order you to keeping on doing it.

Panetta knows this stuff first-hand. He lost Fort Ord in his California district – and the one-quarter of the local economy it represented — more than 20 years ago.

Such congressional restrictions, of course, rightly drives the Defense Department up its five-sided walls. How can you spend your budget wisely if Congress puts up barbed-wire fences around targets ripe for trimming?

Earlier this week, Panetta told lawmakers in a letter that there are $8 billion in “unnecessary programs and activities” — $74 billion over the coming decade – marbled into the House and Senate versions of next year’s authorization bills. All those itemized appear to be of the keep-on, as opposed to the add-on, variety:

— The Department therefore objects to the provisions in the House bill that would restrict retirements of C-27J, C-23, C-130, other aircraft, and the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30. These provisions would force DoD to operate, sustain, and maintain aircraft that are in excess of national requirements and are not affordable in an austere budget environment. Delaying the divestment of the C-23 aircraft into FY 2016 and beyond, for example, would cost $343.5 million for modernization and service life extension on the aircraft. By contrast, termination of the C-27J would result in $2 billion in savings through FY 20lS, termination of 31 Global Hawk Block 30 program aircraft would save $3.8 billion through FY 2017, and retirement of C-5As would save $2.5 billion through FY 20 IS.

— The Department strongly objects to Title XVII of the Senate bill, which would place limitations on funding to be used to divest, retire, or transfer units of the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve, in addition to creating a commission to study the appropriate makeup of the Air Force. In light of the strong congressional opposition to the Air Force’s original force structure changes, the Department would recommend adoption of the new plan designed by the Air Force. This plan would return 70 percent of the personnel and 30 percent of the aircraft, but still provide needed savings ($7.8 billion of $8.7 billion).

— The Department also objects to provisions that would restrict retirements of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines and certain Ticonderoga Class Cruisers (CGs) and Dock Landing Ships (LSDs). The requirement to maintain a minimum of 12 ballistic missile submarines in the fleet – which is neither operationally required nor feasible during the transition between the current and future ballistic missile submarine classes – would limit the Secretary of the Navy’s ability to manage Naval strategic forces to balance risk across the total Naval battle force, and to ensure scarce resources are directed to the highest priorities of the Combatant Commanders. The proposed retirement of 7 CGs at a savings of $2.3 billion through FY 2018 and 2 LSDs at a savings of at least $0.5 billion through FY 20l8 would enable the Department of Defense to carry out its new strategy while realizing significant savings.

— Provisions in the House and Senate bills that would limit the Secretary’s discretion in determining and executing force management efficiencies are also of significant concern. For example, Senate section 2705 would severely constrain the Department’s ability to properly align the military’s infrastructure with the needs of our evolving force structure. The Department strongly objects to section 403 of the House bill, which would limit active duty endstrength reductions for the Army and Marine Corps in FYs 2014-2017 to 15,000 and 5,000 per year, respectively, and would require DoD to fund all Army and Marine Corps active duty end strength in the base budget and not through emergency, supplemental, or overseas contingency operations (OCO) funds. The timing and pace of the planned reductions to the Army and Marine Corps are tied to anticipated changes in operational demand based on the Nation’s current commitments as well as the new defense strategy, which emphasizes a smaller and leaner force. Limiting the Army’s budgeted end-strength reductions to 15,000 per year is estimated to increase military personnel and health care costs by over $0.5 billion in FY 2014 and $1.9 billion through FY 2017. At the same time, House section 1214 would require the Department to divert critical Army combat resources to perform routine security functions.

“If a conferenced bill is enrolled in the current form of either version of the National Defense Authorization Act without the modifications that we are requesting,” Panetta warned, “I will join with the President’s other Senior Advisors in recommending that he veto the legislation.”

Take that, you pork-meisters.