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Defending the Nation From Common Sense

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This meeting of the Senate Military-Industrial Caucus will now come to order.

The chair recognizes the senator from Northrop Grumman for a question.

"We've noticed the increase in the amphibious ship fleet needs that go beyond traditional military missions," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). "Do you see a continuing need for shipbuilding in the amphibious area?"

Of course, Senator. Nobody will hurt the DD(X) destroyers they build in Pascagoula.

Does the senator from General Dynamics have a question?

"Littoral combat ships," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). "Do you believe that this program will play a vital role in our Navy's future fleet?"

Certainly, Senator. Tell the folks in Mobile that their shipbuilding operation is safe. The chair now recognizes the senator from Boeing.

"I wanted to ask you today if you can tell me how you are taking into account the health and longevity of our domestic industrial base," asked Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Sure, Senator. Your constituents in Everett will get another shot at that aerial refueling tanker contract they lost to the Airbus consortium.

And so it went at yesterday's hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, attempting a bold reshaping of the military-industrial complex to meet the changing nature of war, pleaded with the lawmakers to rise above the powerful contractors that fund their campaigns and influence their elections. "The responsibility of this department first and foremost is to fight and win the nation's wars," Gates reminded them. "I know that some will take issue with individual decisions. I would ask, however, that you look beyond specific programs and instead at the full range of what we are trying to do."

Not likely, Mr. Secretary. Lawmakers are perfectly happy to reform military procurement, as long as the cuts are not made in any of their back yards. The result will inevitably be that the Pentagon is forced to fund many programs it doesn't want while shortchanging others it urgently needs.

Yesterday brought two of these NIMBY hearings to the Capitol complex. First, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee huddled with the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey. Chairman Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), who has a solid reputation for giving the Pentagon things it doesn't need, was once more concerned that the war fighters didn't ask for more. "You only put $2 billion into the budget," he complained about one project. "I assume you'll ask for more money?"

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) complained about a "particular problem" in Virginia -- the specter of traffic tie-ups because of a plan to relocate 20,000 Pentagon workers. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) demanded that the Army rescind its plan to hire contractors at West Point. And Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) complained that the community around Fort Stewart has "overbuilt" in anticipation of more Army activity that never came. "We'll find a way to reimburse the community," Murtha assured Kingston. "We do it all the time."

On the other side of the Capitol, senators were making similar cases to Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mississippi's Cochran, who has a Navistar facility in his state that makes Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, started off with a question about "other uses" for the MRAP.

Alabama's Shelby followed that with a bit of lobbying for the Army aviation school at Fort Rucker. "This is an urgent demand in Afghanistan right now," he said.

"Having visited Fort Rucker, it's clear that the schoolhouse needs to be expanded and modernized," Gates replied.

Shelby also coaxed Mullen to praise Alabama's very own littoral combat ships. "Could you tell us here the advantages that the Navy will gain once the service begins to utilize the LCS?" he asked.

"Okay," Mullen obliged. "I need the LCS at sea, deployed today. . . . It offers unique characteristics in terms of speed and mobility and . . ."

"Also firepower," Shelby added.

"And firepower," Mullen agreed.

The boosterism became complicated when lawmakers spoke up for rival contractors. Shelby, speaking for the Northrop Grumman-EADS partnership that wants to build Air Force tankers in Alabama, urged Gates to buy "the most capable tanker for our war fighters." Murray, representing Boeing, the West Coast rival for the contract, countered: "We want the best war fighter, and we also want what's best for the taxpayer, as well."

Luckily for Boeing, the contractor had reinforcements on the committee in the form of Republican Sen. Kit Bond, a great fan of the F/A-18 and the C-17, parts of which just happen to be produced in Bond's home state of Missouri. "Admiral Roughead recently stated that the F/A-18E/F is the aviation backbone of our Navy's ability to project power ashore, and the numbers of the carrier-capable strike fighters will decrease between 2016 and 2020," he complained.

"We will probably buy more in '11," Gates offered.

"Senator Bond, it's a great airplane," Mullen added. "It's actually at a great price."

Congratulations, Admiral. That was the correct answer.

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