The Pentagon, which is facing end-of-year cuts that it says could cripple its ability to fight future wars, may spend billions in coming years on weapons systems and programs it says it doesn’t need but are favored by area members of Congress.
The Dayton Daily News analyzed proposed defense budgets for 2013 and identified five programs that Ohio’s congressional delegation is fighting for although Pentagon officials have called them unnecessary and unaffordable.
Critics say these big-ticket items are earmarks in disguise, using the Department of Defense budget for economic stimulus. They also point out that the multi-million dollar contracts are awarded to major campaign contributors.
Defenders of these programs say the Pentagon isn’t flawless, and sometimes doesn’t budget for things it needs. Plus, without the money, lawmakers say Ohio could lose thousands of jobs. The five projects favored by Ohio politicians that are under scrutiny:
- The Global Hawk Block 30 drone program;
- The C-27J Spartan cargo aircraft;
- Upgrades to the M1 Abrams tank;
- Air National Guard funding;
- A proposed East Coast missile defense system.
Lawmakers fighting for defense projects in their districts is neither rare nor new. But what is new is that the Department of Defense is faced with the threat of a crippling sequestration that could cost it $500 billion over 10 years if Washington can’t balance its budget.
“The number one thing the defense budget should do is protect Americans,” said Ben Freeman, national security investigator for the Washington-based watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. “I’m sympathetic to folks that might be losing their jobs as a result of these defense cuts, but the simple fact is, if you want your government to create jobs the Department of Defense is not the most efficient way to do that.”
“Is the Dayton economy dependent on federal and military spending? The answer is yes,” said Michael Gessel, vice president of governmental relations for the Dayton Development Coalition. “That’s a fact. Does that create a risk for Dayton when there is a strong mood against federal spending? Yes.
“But it’s not a jobs program and would not function as a jobs program. The success of defense spending ultimately is going to be on how well it secures the national defense.”
Area lawmakers said their primary concern in supporting these programs is defense, and that campaign donations play no role in their decision-making.
“National defense and national security is the deliberation first, the impact of jobs is second,” U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville, told the Daily News.
Ohio jobs at risk
In February, the Pentagon released a budget that began the process to cut at least $487 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years. This included terminating the Global Hawk, which the military estimated would save $2.5 billion over five years; the C-27J, at a savings of $400 million; M1 Abrams updates, saving hundreds of millions of dollars; and cutting roughly 5,000 positions from the Air National Guard and reducing that agency’s budget about $300 million.
All of these cuts are tied to Ohio jobs. About 100 people at Wright-Patt are assigned to the Global Hawk’s program management. The C-27Js are based largely at the Mansfield Air National Guard Base, and the National Guard cuts threaten bases in Springfield and Columbus. The M1 Abrams is upgraded in Lima, and supports roughly 800 jobs there.
Against the Defense Department’s wishes, Congress put all the programs back in the budget.
In May, the House Appropriations Committee — with Ohio lawmakers including Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek — approved a 2013 defense bill totaling $519.2 billion. That was $3.1 billion more than the president requested and $1.1 billion more than 2012’s tab.
Turner, meanwhile, has led the charge to plug $100 million into the defense budget to plan for a missile battery to protect the East Coast from a potential Iranian attack missile.
Pentagon officials said they never budgeted for such a shield because they don’t need it.
Pet projects costly
Support for these projects is bipartisan. Ohio’s Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Senator Rob Portman both pushed hard to save funding for the Abrams tank and C-27J. Portman sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Brown on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But the spending comes at a price, according to Pentagon and administration officials.
“If members try to restore their favorite programs without regard to an overall strategy, the cuts will have to come from areas that could impact overall readiness,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a May news briefing.
“Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security,” Panetta added. “And if for some reason they do not want to comply with the Budget Control Act, then they would certainly be adding to the deficit, which only puts our national security further at risk.”
The budget is expected to be finalized after the November election, though the struggle over continued funding could extend long beyond that.
Grant Neeley, professor of political science at University of Dayton, called this a “collective action problem.”
“(Legislators) need to cut the budget but (won’t) take those jobs in our state. Especially in an election year in a battleground state,” he said. “They’re going to provide rationale, but at the end of the day, it’s about protecting jobs in their district. If they have the choice between making a cut in their district and making a cut somewhere else, which one do you think they’re going to choose?”
The companies behind these projects have multi-million dollar lobbying efforts and are major campaign contributors to key lawmakers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Area lawmakers have received tens of thousands of dollars in recent years from companies that profit from this work, and Ohio lawmakers have received more than $500,000 from the political action committees and employees of three of these companies since 2004.
Drones at WPAFB
The biggest ticket item plugged back into the budget is the purchase and maintenance of the Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned drone program, which is headquartered at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
The military decided to ground the Global Hawk, saying it could save $2.5 billion by 2017 by extending the life of the U-2 spy plane – an upgraded version of the same plane used in the 1950s – through 2025.
This came as area leaders were looking to secure the fate of jobs at Wright-Patt by emphasizing its role in managing the Global Hawk and other drone systems at the base’s Aeronautical Systems Center. The drones boasted the ability to stay aloft longer than the U-2.
The House Appropriations Committee took issue with the Air Force’s rejection of the Global Hawk and refused to eliminate the program after being told the year before it was essential to national security. They put $278 million back into the budget to fund the program.
Like the other programs and weapons systems, an argument could be made for keeping the Global Hawk, according to Mike O’Hanlon, senior policy fellow at the non-partisan Brookings Institute.
“If we had more money, it would be fine,” he said. “The problem is the Pentagon budget is going to come down even more than planned. Therefore we’re going to have to make even more tough choices.”
National Guard, C-27J
Austria himself wrote an amendment to protect the National Guard from cuts by preventing the military from retiring or transferring Air Force aircraft or making large changes to Air National Guard units. At stake, he says, are more than 1,000 jobs at bases in Springfield, Mansfield and Columbus.
When asked if his amendment was about saving jobs or national security, Austria said “both.”
“I think this is about national defense, and the economy and jobs,” he said. “I understand the challenges the Department of Defense and the Air Force is going through … but I would argue some of these cuts are dispropportionate toward the National Guard.”
The military’s budget called for cutting roughly 5,100 Air National Guard jobs and cutting the branch’s budget about $300 million.
“The Air Force may have made a mistake here,” said O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute. “My inclination is to think we should have been cutting more from the active force and less from the guard.”
The Pentagon also tried to terminate use of the C-27J Spartan, a medium-sized airlift aircraft flown by the 179th Airlift Wing based in Mansfield and other bases. That was projected to save $200 million in 2013 and $400 million by 2017.
“The Department has deemed that it is a manageable risk to terminate this program because many of its missions can be accomplished by the legacy C-130 fleet,” military planners wrote in the defense budget overview.
In Ohio, cuts to the Guard and to the C-27J were expected to shutter the Mansfield base, furloughing 800 guardsmen, eliminating up to 300 jobs at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus as well as dozens of jobs at Springfield Air National Guard base.
The future of the Mansfield base brightened after President Barack Obama came under pressure to keep it open after he landed there for a campaign stop. His office subsequently issued a statement that it will work “to find a mission” for the base.
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, whose district includes the Mansfield base, said jobs are important, but he fought to keep the base open because he believes it’s important for national defense.
“We believe this is in the best interest of our national defense because they had just been deployed and were serving our country in a war zone just recently,” he told the Daily News.
The last rotation of guardsmen from Mansfield returned home in May after a three- to six-month mission flying supplies in Afghanistan.
The House budget committee, in directing the Pentagon to buy up to 17 additional C-27Js next year, lamented that the Air Force has spent more than $1 billion on the aircraft and as recently as last year was calling it vital.
The plane also has backing in the Senate. Neither Sens. Brown nor Portman agreed to be interviewed for this story, both issuing statements in defense of the C-27J and the M1 Abrams.
Jordan’s district also includes the tank plant in Lima where the Army is upgrading the M1 Abrams tank, and may continue to do so even though it doesn’t want to.
The famed, nearly 70-ton tank — with its 120-mm cannon — has earned respect on battlefields since the Cold War, and the military has spent billions outfitting them with the latest technology at the government-owned Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima.
But with roughly 6,000 upgraded tanks in operation, the Army says it doesn’t need more tanks. The Army wants to cut spending on upgrading tanks to $74.4 million in fiscal 2013, a decrease of $362 million, or 83 percent, from this year. It wants to suspend work possibly until 2017 to save money as it resizes its fleet of combat vehicles after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The idea we need hundreds more of these upgrades is foolishness,” Project on Government Oversight’s Freeman said. “The Abrams is arguably the best tank on the planet. Tanks are primarily good at destroying other tanks. Sounds good. But no other country has a legitimate threat to challenge us in tank-to-tank warfare right now.”
In addition to roughly 800 jobs in Lima, cutting the program would impact parts suppliers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
“We don’t need, I don’t think, more tank modifications and the Pentagon does need to find ways to save money,” O’Hanlon said. “And there is often a tendency by whatever (congressional) district is affected … to try to rescue its constituents.”
Brown, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced this month he had helped secure $294 million for the program.
“The Abrams tank is not only vital to our country’s national security and military readiness, but is critically important to the economy of Lima and Allen County,” Brown said in a statement.
The House set aside $255 million for continued tank upgrades in May. This followed an April 20 letter to Panetta from more than 100 lawmakers on both sides of the aisle saying keeping the plant open “is necessary to preserve the industrial base.”
“You’re going to lose the skill set that’s there at the plant right now,” Jordan said, arguing that the country could lose key capabilities if it ceased building tanks for a few years.
Some argue that it will cost more to reopen the plant when a new upgrade is ready in 2017 than to just keep the line “warm” and keep upgrading tanks. Turner said he was told in an Armed Services briefing that the military could save $100 million by keeping the line open versus having to set it back up and re-hire everyone in just a few years. General Dynamics, which operates the federally owned plant under a contract, puts the cost of reopening it much higher.
Army Secretary John McHugh said it would cost $600 million to $800 million to close and later reopen the production line, compared with more than $3 billion to keep it running until 2017.
“This is all about the jobs,” Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a former Office of Management and Budget official in President Bill Clinton’s administration told Bloomberg news this month. “It is unnecessary spending and in that sense wasteful.”
Jordan said his support for the program is based on national security, not jobs.
“The main reason I’m for it is because I think it’s in the best interest of the U.S. to defend our country,” he said.
Turner, R-Dayton, has been criticized for pushing for an East Coast missile defense battery the Pentagon says isn’t needed. He put $100 million into next year’s budget to begin work on it.
Turner, who holds an influential post on the House Armed Services Committee, said he believes the project is vital to national security. The $100 million is just a start, with the goal of having such a site operational by 2016. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this could cost between $1.2 billion and $3.6 billion by 2017.
“We are at great risk from North Korea and Iran as their missile and weapons of mass destruction programs move forward,” Turner said. “Construction of an East Coast site is an inevitability. I believe by waiting we are placing our nation’s cities at risk.”
Others disagree, saying neither Iran nor North Korea have weapons capable of reaching America’s East Coast. The country already has some missile defense, including an anti-missile system on the West Coast.
In the same press meeting where Panetta talked about pet projects – a day before Turner put the missile battery in the budget – Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the missile battery was unnecessary.
“In my military judgment, the program of record for ballistic missile defense for the homeland, as we’ve submitted it, is adequate and sufficient to the task. And that’s a suite of ground-based and sea-based interceptors,” he said.
Democrat Sharen Neuhardt, the Yellow Springs attorney challenging Turner for his seat this year, blasted the missile shield while defending the more parochial projects. She wrote in a statement that the M1 Abrams, Global Hawk drones and local National Guard bases are “important both to our military as well as the Miami Valley.”
“Other projects added to the defense budget, however, such as the East Coast Missile Defense Shield, have no local connection and do not enhance our national defense. It’s unclear why exactly Rep. Turner thinks this wasteful, unnecessary program should be funded,” she wrote.
O’Hanlon of Brookings said it’s “unfair” to assume that anytime Congress and the Pentagon disagree, lawmakers are wrong.
“Maybe two-thirds of the time Congress is wrong and the Pentagon is right, but that’s still a much different discussion,” he said.
That said, of the weapons systems identified by the Daily News, O’Hanlon said: “I think most of those weapons do need to be cut; we just don’t have a need for it in this fiscal environment.”
Jordan opposed the debt ceiling vote that created the current sequestration crisis, and opposes proposed cuts to defense, saying the nation’s budget should be balanced elsewhere.
“Lets keep things in perspective, the rest of government is where the concerns are,” he said. “The one area we’re constitutionally obligated to spend our money is the first area the left wants to cut, and I think it should be the other way around.”
Gessel said the military creates jobs that are vital to the economy — developing satellites and the Internet among other things — but that’s a secondary benefit.
“That’s not its purpose. The purpose of the military is national defense,” he said. “Now if you ask, does it create jobs? You bet. Moreover, much of the support for the military for the United States and Congress is directly related to constituent job creation or job creation in the hometown district.”
POGO’s Freeman said defense should be the only measure when judging these programs.
“Politicians, based on their local interests, their campaign contributions and that sort of thing, they say they want it even though there’s not an actual security need for it, and most people in America when you ask them … that’s the definition of an earmark,” he said. “If the military says they don’t want it, I certainly don’t want to pay for it.”
Staff Writer Andrew J. Tobias, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.