An A-10 Warthog at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Corey Cook / AFP / Getty Images) An A-10 Warthog at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Corey Cook / AFP / Getty Images)

One of Washington’s recurring idiocies is the way members of the congressional armed services committees, who profess to revere the U.S. military, insist on imposing their own judgments to preserve outmoded systems the military wants to cut.

The latest example of this military pork-barrel phenomenon is the House Armed Services Committee’s campaign to stop the Air Force from retiring the aged fleet of A-10 “Warthog” ground support planes, whose most recent models were built 30 years ago. Cutting the A-10s would save $4.2 billion over the next five years, allowing the Air Force to invest in systems that can protect America in the future.

But no. The House committee members, led by California Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, think they know better. So it has approved language that will prevent the Air Force from retiring the 283 A-10s in the fleet, forcing the Air Force to cut other programs that have less political patronage. The Senate Armed Services Committee is now marking up its version of the bill.

The A-10 fleet that Congress is determined to protect includes 143 planes assigned to active duty units, while 85 are assigned to the National Guard and 55 to the Air Force Reserve. In other words, about half this fleet is for the Guard and Reserves, perennial congressional pets. “All are fiercely protected by their Representatives and Senators. Apparently, much more fiercely than they protect the capability of the US toachieve its national security objectives on the world stage,” laments a top Air Force general.

What’s depressing about this process is that the military’s budget recommendations were the process of careful deliberation up the chain of command. The recommendations were made by the services, reviewed by the combatant commanders and then sent to Congress. They represent the military’s best judgment about how best to protect the nation given limited budget resources. But this analytical process has blown away, as so often in the past, by a congressional beauty pageant that preserves the status-quo programs and the benefits they provide for members and their districts.

What else is the House insisting on? It rules out any study of closing additional bases in a new “BRAC” round. It protects spending and perks for the sacrosanct Guard and Reserves. It refuses the pentagon’s pleas to slow the growth of military pay and allowances. The list goes on, but you get the point: If members of Congress can protect popular, vote-getting programs, they will do so, regardless of the Pentagon’s arguments about what’s best for the national security.

“It’s baffling,” says the senior Air Force general, who explained the budget mess in an interview this week. “It seems that local politics trumps and Air Force or military leadership trying to build a force that can defend the nation.”

The White House says that if the spending bill that emerges from Congress prevents the administration from directing scarce resources to where the generals and admirals say they’re needed most, President Obama vetoes the bill. I hope he does—and dares the congress to tell the country that the solons of Capitol Hill know better what the military needs than do the men and women in uniform.


David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.