Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates invited freshman members of Congress over to the Pentagon for a meeting. At one point during the visit, a congressman wondered aloud whether it was possible that the Pentagon was so focused on two counterinsurgency wars that it wasn't preparing for more conventional battles.
Gates "bristled" at this notion, according to Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, and answered that he was well aware of the need to maintain strategic deterrence against big powers while fighting wars on two fronts. Gates then made what many considered to be a striking remark. He pointed out, by Coffman's account, that the considerable job of assembling a defense budget that balances these demands might be easier if members of Congress didn't have a list of weapons systems manufactured in their districts "always" at the ready "in their back pockets."
The exchange offers some insight into the upcoming budget showdown between the Pentagon and Congress. President Obama made it clear in his prime-time press conference yesterday that changing the way the Pentagon buys its expensive weapons systems will be one key way to cut the deficit "by a couple trillion dollars." To that end, the administration is pressing the Defense Department, historically no enemy of bloated weapons systems, to make cuts in programs that carry big costs into future years. At the same time, as Gates pointed out, lawmakers often fight these cuts (sometimes for programs that eventhe Pentagon says it doesn't need) to keep jobs in their districts. Now, some big-ticket items are on the chopping block. This includes the Air Force's prized F-22 advanced fighter jet, which has more than a few friends on Capitol Hill.
In a sign of how much of a front-burner issue defense spending has become, Gates's team put out word earlier this monththat he will skip a NATO summit in April, where allies are slated to discuss critical issues in Afghanistan, to concentrate on his budget battles at home. "Given the fact that the U.S. will be well represented, the work that still has to be done back here on what is arguably probably one of the most challenging budget reviews that has taken place in a number of years, he just felt that it's best that he remain here and work on that," said Bryan Whitman, a DOD spokesman.
It is such a sensitive process that Gates asked participants in the Pentagon process, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to sign confidentiality agreements. That's in large part because he is preparing to take on some powerful lobbying forces. Defense contractors have in turn been buying ads and hiring consultants to write opinion pieces for major newspapers touting various weapons systems.
With the economy in tatters, Gates has asked Congress to set aside its parochial interests, insisting that no program is off limits for serious cuts or even elimination. Such comments tend to create no small measure of anxiety on Capitol Hill. Defense contractors take care to spread production of expensive weapons systems widely throughout a number of congressional districts, often providing scarce jobs in struggling local economies. Driven by these considerations, no fewer than 44 senators signed a letter to President Obama last month extolling the virtues of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. Critics have charged that the Pentagon plane is ridiculously expensive and has not proved as useful as manufacturer Lockheed Martin had advertised. Gates offered his own critique of the aircraft during a hearing earlier this year. "The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," he pointed out.
The recent letter from Congress, however, warned of "layoffs" if production shuts down. It noted that manufacturing the plane "provides over $12 billion of [annual] economic activity to the national economy."
Budget analysts are closely watching the F-22's fate as a crucial barometer of the new administration's approach to money matters. The Air Force is arguing that the stealth fighter, which is invisible to most radar systems, is vital for a number of reasons. Chief among them, it says, is that it is the only aircraft capable of penetrating Iranian airspace without being detected. Currently, 183 fighters have been built or are under construction. With the cost more than $300 million per fighter, however—roughly three times the originally projected cost—the Air Force has backed off its original request for 200 more of them. A senior Air Force officer privately says that officials "would be happy with" an additional 40 to 60 fighters.
Given the problems the plane has had with cost overruns and pilot complaints about its limited maneuverability, even a compromise to build 20 more fighters would "signal that there hasn't been a change in how we're procuring these," says Mandy Smithberger, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight. "We think the right and courageous thing to do is to stop procuring it." But, she adds, "I think one of the big problems you see is just how many members of Congress are willing to back defense programs not based on national security but jobs."
Other expensive programs are under new scrutiny as well. Army officials called a roundtable discussion for reporters earlier this month to defend the Army's new high-tech network of vehicles and robots, called the Future Combat System, arguing that it is needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after Gates's recent lambasting of "baroque" weapons systems and a warning that the defense spending "spigot" opened after 9/11 is now closing, Pentagon officials are privately betting on cuts not only to the F-22 but also to the Army's FCS program, which has run nearly $160 billion over original cost estimates.
The Pentagon critics are buoyed by some new oversight proposals, including a bill cosponsored by Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee. A memo prepared by Levin's staff on the legislation to rein in cost overruns notes that the Pentagon's major programs, on average, exceed their research and development budgets by 40 percent and are delivered two years late. "Such cost growth has become so pervasive," notes the memo, "that it may come to be viewed as an expected and acceptable occurrence in the life of a weapons program."
Few would argue this point. The question is whether the Pentagon, under Gates, can usher in a new era of reform. With hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, each cut will be a fight, both within the Pentagon and among lawmakers, who effectively have the final say.