The congressional dysfunction virus has hit the Pentagon, or at least the Air Force.
On Monday, speaking at an Air Force Association breakfast, Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning described a summer spent working on two budgets for fiscal 2015, though only one will go to Congress next year. That’s because Congress has not passed this year’s fiscal 2014 budget, and the Air Force is surviving on the continuing resolution based on fiscal 2013 levels.
Normally, 2015 planning would be based on fiscal 2014 figures, but services are guessing what they might get when legislators finally act. They also must plan for what seems likely — sequestration, the automatic cuts that apply under the 2011 Budget Control Act if Congress doesn’t change the lower defense spending caps set for fiscal 2015.
The Air Force, Fanning said, built “two budgets, a low budget that took sequestration into account in the long run, and then a high budget, which is roughly built off of the president’s [fiscal 2014] budget.”
Unlike the Army and Navy, the Air Force put almost 99 percent of its effort on the low budget. Fanning said it was easier to go low and build up plans for a higher 2015 figure than cut to a sequester level.
“That’s a real struggle for [the Army and Navy], even now to really define what their low budget is,” he said.
The Air Force is defending its budget choices before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s money people, which Fanning called “a fun thing.” He had worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which he said has “a different culture” than the services.
A former Navy aide once told him, “Don’t work anywhere in the Pentagon that doesn’t have a football team or a band,” meaning at the Office of the Secretary of Defense “they don’t have to pay for any of it — they just tell you what they don’t like you not doing anymore.”
Fanning said they then must go “across the river” to the Office of Management and Budget, where he expects “they’re not going to like a lot of things in” the Air Force budget.
Finally, it goes to Congress, where, he said, “everyone will know when it hits the Hill because you’ll be able to hear it [an uproar because of what was cut] no matter where you are in the country.”
Fanning noted another area where the virus struck: stopping the Air Force from closing air bases it no longer needs.
The Base Realignment and Closure program is the process Congress established that must be followed before a base can be closed. Meanwhile, taking such a cost-cutting step is “fenced off,” Fanning said. “It’s kind of the one thing on the Hill that you can find unanimity — House, Senate, Democrat, Republican — it’s no BRAC, no BRAC, no BRAC,” he said with some irony.
“The BRAC law does not allow you to do any deep analysis on infrastructure and excess capacity,” Fanning said. During the last BRAC round in 2005, the Air Force already had a 20 percent excess capacity “and we’re smaller now than we were then, getting smaller even still,” he said, noting further reduction plans of some 25,000 personnel and 550 aircraft.
“You can’t get rid of the base, but you don’t have anything to put there [and] it’s expensive to maintain,” Fanning said.
This past year, the Air Force tried to cut back cargo aircraft and change basing. It hit major objections from Congress and governors, because the Air National Guard was involved. Now the Air Force is exploring what the legal options are without BRAC. But Congress is guarding against base reduction.
For example, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has an amendment pending for the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill that would eliminate funds for technical support for a new BRAC round.
Also, a bipartisan group of seven senators has an amendment regarding the ICBM silos that will be emptied of missiles under the new arms treaty with Russia. The senators want the silos to be kept in a missile field with functioning command and control systems in case they must be reloaded.
Another part of the Air Force problem is that sequestration requires immediate reductions while some more rational cuts, such as reducing military and civilian personnel, add to immediate costs. The savings would occur in the future.
The Air Force, Fanning said, wanted to use incentives to get people to leave voluntarily but that is “an investment up front . . . and we estimate that it takes about a year from when you start the process before you start seeing savings in your budget.” That meant that it’s already too late to see savings in such a move in the fiscal 2015 budget being drawn up.
To outwit the virus, Fanning’s view is to accept that “sequester is the new norm” and “the sooner we start dealing with it . . . the sooner we can get some stability.”
That’s tough medicine. Let’s see whether the Pentagon, the White House and Congress swallow it.