Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has joked that he wants a combat badge “with clusters” for his three days on Capitol Hill last week spent fighting off critics of the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 defense budget.
During his appearances before the Senate and House Armed Services committees and the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, Panetta — a former eight-term House member himself — defended the $45.3 billion in proposed trims meant to meet provisions of the August 2011 Budget Control Act.
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.
If you think the Block 30 battle is over, think again.
According to the Feb. 13 issue of the San Diego-based North County Times, Northrop spokesman Jim Stratford said “the Air Force has told us that there is no change to the contract and that we are to continue work as contracted.”
Northrop, which disputes the claim that the Global Hawk is too expensive, has the option of making its arguments directly to Congress. “So it really is too early in the process to speculate on any reductions,” Stratford told the North County Times.
Another procurement change that drew repeated questions related to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the highly complex, fifth-generation aircraft with stealth capability and highly sophisticated, new offensive and defensive technologies.
About 2,400 are to be bought over more than a decade. It is the Pentagon’s most costly procurement program. The decision was made to slow down production schedules because planes were being built while development work was still being done on key systems. For example, software controlling the F-35’s major war-fighting functions, the most complex ever planned for an airplane, has been delayed so that the last block will not be introduced to the aircraft until at least June 2015.
While 29 F-35s will be funded in 2013, 179 fewer aircraft will be produced in the next five years, saving about $15.1 billion. The 179 will be bought in later years.
More than once, Panetta had to answer questions from lawmakers who argued that when you delay production in large acquisition programs such as the F-35, your costs increase.
Slowing production, Panetta explained to the House subcommittee, would allow the manufacturer to “incorporate the changes that have to be made and make it less expensive when it comes to full production, as opposed to go into full production and then [later] having to make horrendous changes that are going to add to the cost.”
When the same question came up later in the same hearing, Panetta was briefer: “We want to make damn sure that we don’t wind up . . . redoing these planes and adding to the cost. That’s what I’ve got to be careful of, and that’s why we slowed the production of these planes.”
Let’s give Panetta another oak-leaf cluster, but don’t bet he’s going to come out a total winner in this particular war.
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