No member called for deeper reductions. Instead, Panetta faced member after member who questioned the stretching out of purchasing aircraft, or the cancellation of a weapons system, or the changing of pay or health care or retirement costs, or the possible shift of mission or closing of a base or a National Guard or reserve unit.
Panetta confessed Friday afternoon during a town hall meeting at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana:
“I’ve been in hearings for the last three days. . . . I think I should get some kind of award going through that. . . . [Laughs.]
“I mean, I told — I told General [Martin] Dempsey [the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared with him] I need a new, you know, combatant — a new combat badge [laughter] for going to Capitol Hill — with clusters [laughter].”
But there are serious fiscal lessons from this first week of hearings on defense.
First, forget about the sequestration threat to take an additional $500 billion from Pentagon spending in the next 10 years. It’s not going to happen. Congress has to find some additional revenue streams — a war tax, for example — or cut spending somewhere else.
These initial hearings clearly showed that the administration will have its hands full just maintaining the proposed 2013 reductions.
Take the decision to halt procurement of one version of the unmanned, long-range surveillance aircraft, Global Hawk Block 30. The Pentagon will buy 21 and not the previously planned fleet of 31. Fourteen of these unmanned aerial vehicles are in service, four are in production, and three more have been funded at roughly $200 million each.
The administration’s plan is to put the 21 in storage and continue using piloted U-2 aircraft for intelligence and surveillance missions.
Both the Global Hawk and the U-2 have two basic sensors — one for imagery, another to intercept electronic messages. The latter sensors are roughly equal, but imagery on the U-2 is “far superior,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry O. Spencer of the Joint Staff. “It would be cost prohibitive to try to get the Global Hawk to be as capable as the U-2,” he said.
“The Block 30 Global Hawk has fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it when the U-2 gives in some cases a better capability and in some cases just a slightly less capable platform,” Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee.
Panetta repeatedly had to defend his support of unmanned systems when asked about the Global Hawk decision.
Before the House subcommittee, he said, “When you look at the cost effectiveness here, actually the U-2 provides an even better picture at a lesser cost and does the job.” He even pointed out that other elements of Global Hawk — the Block 40 version, which provides a unique ground surveillance capability — are still being procured from Northrop Grumman.