Today, the US Air Force announced that squadrons grounded since April, from combat units to the famous Thunderbirds, had the funding to fly again – for now. Congress had given the service permission to move some $423 million from other programs into the training budget, enough to keep planes flying until October 1st, when the next fiscal year begins and the military’s money problems may start all over again.
To get the money for that short-term fix, however, the Air Force had to cut back on long-term investments. That includes almost $20 million in new missiles, $50 million in new C-130 transports (mostly the souped-up Special Force version, the MC-130), and about $70 million in upgrades for existing aircraft, from B-1B bombers to F-15 fighters. That’s particularly troubling at a time when most Air Force fighters were built during the Reagan buildup and are wearing out, with one 27-year-old F-15 literally breaking apart in flight back in 2007. (Bombers, on average, are even older, although they aren’t flown as hard). But the service bit that bullet and decided near-term combat readiness had to be the top priority for limited dollars.
“I think they feel a sense of responsibility to be prepared to ‘fight tonight,’ knowing that the longer they are grounded, the more and more resources it’s going to take to dig out of the hole,” one Congressional aide told BreakingDefense’s Colin Clark. “But it also is a double-edged sword because it shows that they can ‘live’ under sequestration, albeit just in the short term.”
“Sequestration” is the term of art for the cuts imposed on federal spending by the Budget Control Act of 2011, with half the bill — $500 billion over 10 years — falling on the Department of Defense. Certainly, the Pentagon could become more efficient and save taxpayer dollars. Just as certainly, not training for combat is the least efficient and, for that matter, most dangerous way to save money you could think of.
Grounding pilots is particularly problematic, because flying an aircraft is not like riding a bicycle: If you haven’t kept in constant practice, you can’t hop back in the cockpit and trust it will all just come back to you. Pilots who haven’t flown in a while spend a lot of time in simulators, but they still have to “re-qualify” when they get back in actual aircraft before they can start all-out training for combat again. You get a lot more combat readiness for your dollar if you keep on training at a steady pace than if you stop and start again.
Yet budget shortfalls have forced the military to cut back training across the board, not just in the Air Force but in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps as well, and not just for pilots but for warships and ground troops too. (I’ve asked the other services if they have any good news coming comparable to that from the Air Force, since their reprogramming requests have presumably come through as well, but as yet I don’t have answers; stay tuned). The Army, for instance, has cancelled major training exercises for 78 percent of its combat brigades, basically everyone not heading to Afghanistan. The Navy even “delayed” — indefinitely — the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Truman and its escorts to the Persian Gulf: That’s not just a training cut, it’s a 50 percent reduction in our carrier force keeping an eye on Iran.
The problem is political. When Republicans and Democrats couldn’t compromise on how to cut the federal deficit in 2011, they instead came up with a plan to force themselves to compromise later, somehow. If the two parties didn’t make a deal on what to cut by January 1st, 2013, the Budget Control Act said, a process called “sequestration” would automatically slash the same percentage of almost every program in the budget. (Almost, that is, with the huge exception of entitlements such as a Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which depending on how you count them make up 45 to 62 percent of federal spending; legal mechanics make entitlements much harder to cut than “discretionary” programs that have to be re-funded every year). Republicans bet Democrats would agree to anything to stop domestic programs from getting sequestered; Democrats bet Republicans would cave on other issues to stop cuts to defense. Both sides were wrong.
A last-minute, short-term deal on New Year’s Day raised taxes and staved off sequestration until March 31st. A few high-profile programs like federal air traffic controllers then got exempted from the cuts to avoid a public outcry. But every budget item that’s exempted requires more cuts from all the rest. Pay, healthcare, and (most) benefits for military personnel are exempt, for example, but civilian employees from Pentagon bureaucrats to tank mechanics are being furloughed – leave without pay – for 11 days this year, while weapons buys and combat training are being cut back.
The armed services have some legal leeway to move money around to fill the worst holes, and Congress’s approval of their “reprogramming” request granted them more. But they have to use that flexibility first and foremost to find money for their most urgent priority, units either currently in Afghanistan or soon to deploy there, which means everyone else suffers even more.
Nor will things get better on October 1st, when the new federal budget year begins. First of all, no Congress this century has passed the necessary spending bills on time. Without proper appropriations, the Congress relies on stopgaps called “continuing resolutions” that basically tell government agencies to keep spending what they were spending, plus or minus some percentage, without any leeway to start new programs or, for that matter, to stop spending on ones they want to cancel. It was shortfalls from the Continuing Resolution for fiscal year 2013 (which, confusingly, started in October 2012) that drove the Navy to keep the USS Truman in port, as much as the sequestration cuts themselves.
Continuing Resolutions, though, are at least a short-term problem, albeit a hardy perennial one. The Budget Control Act cuts continue for ten years. Defense programs, in particular, will take a $50 billion hit every year for a decade. Yet at the moment, the White House, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and the Democratic Senate have all approved budgets that assume the cuts will be much smaller, somehow, with each party proposing alternatives that the other won’t accept. If Washington can’t come up with a compromise to repeal or at least modify the Budget Control Act, then any budget above what the BCA allows will simply get trimmed, automatically, by the across-the-board cuts of another sequester for fiscal 2014.
That won’t just cause a repeat of 2013’s short-term training shortfalls and long-term investments foregone, however. Instead, as deferred maintenance and unpaid bills pile up, the problems will compound like interest on a credit card. The odds are things will just get worse.
Colin Clark also contributed to this story.