Military funds to spare?

December 19, 2012

Congress and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta showed this week that there are hundreds of millions, if not billions, of loose dollars in the Pentagon’s budget that can be shifted around without apparent harm to national security.

In a speech Wednesday at the National Press Club, Panetta voiced his frustration at changes the House and Senate armed services committees had made in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill. At one point he said that the committees “had diverted about $74 billion of what we asked for in savings in our proposed budget to the Congress, and they diverted them to other areas that, frankly, we don’t need.”

He spoke about “pressure on the department to retain excess force structure and infrastructure instead of investing in the training and equipment that makes our force agile and flexible and ready.” Without specifying programs, Panetta mentioned having to keep “aircraft, ships, tanks, bases, even those that have outlived their usefulness, [but] have a natural political constituency.”

As if on cue, just two hours after Panetta’s speech, the chairmen of the Senate and House armed services committees — Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) — released summaries of the House-Senate conference report on the fiscal 2013 defense bill that contained funding changes illustrating some of what Panetta had been complaining about.

For example, the conferees approved more than $500 million to continue the Global Hawk Block 30, high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft that have integrated imagery, radar and intelligence sensors. The Pentagon had decided to risk terminating this version of Global Hawk (there are others in use and being built) and noted that it would save $800 million in fiscal 2013 and $2.5 billion over the next five years.

Two other congressional add-ons illustrate members’ desire to keep plant production lines open — and jobs filled. They were $136 million to upgrade the M1 Abrams tank and $140 million to modify the M2 Bradley armored vehicle. And $45 million was added to funds to purchase F-18s to hold open “the option of buying more” in fiscal 2014. In the nuclear area, Congress added $70 million toward construction of a $3.7 billion building for research on plutonium at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that the administration wanted to delay for two more years.

Two other congressional favorites got boosts beyond what the Pentagon approved. One was an added $152 million for missile defense; the other, for $143 million, went to Special Operations Command for an imagery intelligence program its commander wanted but higher-level officials vetoed. The conferees’ message: What Special Ops wants, it gets.

One compromise reached over the past month involved the administration’s controversial plan to reorganize military air transport assets that affected Air National Guard bases around the country, a step that mobilized opposition not just from Congress but from governors of the states involved. The solution was to halt the retirement of 26 C-5A aircraft, “holding the strategic airlift total at 301 aircraft, until the Defense Department completes a comprehensive study of air mobility requirements,” according to the House committee. In addition, the Air Force will maintain an additional 32 C-130 or C-27J tactical airlift aircraft, some of which were going to be retired.

As he has in the past, Panetta said that health-care costs for the military were growing fast and had hit $50 billion this year. The need was for some cost controls, but the conferees blocked any increase in fees for the Defense Department’s heath-care program, known as TRICARE, or any effort to establish new ones.

Meanwhile, the conferees took steps to cap the rate under which the Army and Marine Corps reduce force numbers over the next five years. And somehow they found excess funds to provide provisions to ease the blow to the roughly 100,000 service personnel that are let go. Those individuals will be permitted to reside in military housing with their families for six months after their date of separation and use commissary and exchange stores for two years after separation.

There was one $188 million reduction that neither Panetta nor the conferees touched — the one for military bands.

The Army maintains 99 bands, many of them National Guard-based, and intends to spend $221.1 million on them during fiscal 2013. That’s up $3.3 million from fiscal 2012. The Navy has 14 bands that will cost an estimated $55.6 million next year, while the Marine Corps has 12 bands that will cost $53.6 million in 2013. The Air Force has 12 active-duty and 11 Air National Guard bands. Together they cost an estimated $58 million.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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