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Military defense budget threatens national defense - and St. Louis jobs, say Bond, Akin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2009 - WASHINGTON - The defense budget hasn't even been released yet -- that's scheduled for mid-May -- but already the administration's intentions are drawing close scrutiny, most vocally from members of the St. Louis-area congressional delegation worried about local jobs and national security.

President Barack Obama put out his general defense guidelines last month, followed by a news conference earlier this month in which Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear his goal of reforming the defense budgeting and procurement processes.

Skelton introduces bill

Rep. Ike Skelton says the keys to improving Pentagon procurement of weapons systems are greater congressional involvement in the reform effort along with enhanced independent oversight -- and he's introducing legislation to make that happen.

In a bill he announced Thursday that he would file, Skelton -- whose role as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee makes him one of the most powerful players in military affairs on Capitol Hill -- seeks to influence the initial stages of the acquisition process.

The Missouri Democrat is introducing the Weapons Acquisition System reform Through Enhancing Technical Knowledge and Oversight (the WASTE TKO Act), with two Republicans and a Democrat.

It adds an official committee voice to the discussion about changing the Pentagon's system for acquiring weapons, and calls for the evaluation of alternative solutions at various points in the acquisition process as well as the appointment of independent officials to exercise oversight early in the process. Those steps would result in the purchase of better weapons while saving taxpayer money, Skelton says.

Most observers agree with Gates about the necessity of bringing the acquisition process up to date and disentangling it from congressional politics, of modernizing the military so it can fight tomorrow's wars instead of yesterday's, and of saving taxpayer money whenever possible.

In a sense, Gates is finally following through on prior pledges that he -- and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld -- made to wean the Pentagon from reliance on some traditional defense platforms, so the military can better meet evolving threats in today's unpredictable world.

The trims and shifts in spending are driven by several factors: a desire to transform the military, an economic crisis that requires hard choices, and a new president who wants to steer away from what he regards as an over-reliance on the military.

Christopher Hellman, a military budget expert in Washington, says that for much of the past decade, "The Pentagon's been sort of pushing until 'next year' the moment of decision. Well, now you don't really have that luxury."

Missouri Legislators react to Gates

But as often is the case in Washington, the devil will be in the details. Some key Missouri legislators involved in defense matters are expressing concerns that national security -- and thousands of good-paying Missouri jobs -- might fall victim as the budget process continues. A total of 5,000 Boeing employees in St. Louis work on the F/A-18 fighter or the C-17 transport plane, with thousands of more Missourians employed at supplier-related jobs in the state.

Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., says sharp cuts in procurement of Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornets will leave Navy aircraft carriers with depleted decks of planes. Akin, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Service Committee's sea power panel, says that replacing the Super Hornet with the as-yet unready Joint Strike Fighter means that for an underdetermined period of time, "we'd be short an amount equal to four to five aircraft carriers, before the JSF is ready."

About 4,000 Boeing employees in St. Louis work on the Super Hornet program. Across the country, more than 100,000 Americans in 46 states work on it, including a network of 1,900 suppliers. As of April 1, Boeing had delivered 388 Super Hornets to the Navy -- each one on or ahead of schedule and on budget -- a rarity in defense contracts.

But the military wants to trim its purchase of Boeing's jet fighter as part of its move toward the Joint Strike Fighter made by Lockheed Martin. Lockheed's success over rival McDonnell Douglas of St. Louis in the bidding process a decade ago led to McDonnell's demise and the firm's purchase by Boeing, which transformed it into Boeing's St. Louis-based defense business.

Gates' plan to eliminate the $87 billion vehicle component of the Future Combat System worries Akin as well. The $300 billion Army modernization project led by Boeing is among the largest military programs ever.

"Nationally, the thing that scares me even more than aircraft carriers having no planes is that the FCS is the only Army modernization program across the Army in the last 35 years," he says. "So if they shut that down, they're basically shutting down Army modernization."

What especially worries Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, a senior defense appropriator, is the plan to end purchase of Boeing's C-17 transport plane by next year. The plane, which about 1,000 Boeing employees in St. Louis help build, transports U.S. military personnel and equipment.

"It's the only aircraft performing the entire range of strategic and tactical operations, and humanitarian needs as well," the Missouri Republican says. "It's a true workhorse."

Bond wrote Thursday to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense panel, asking them to add funding for 15 additional C-17s. Calling the plane "indispensable to our national security," Bond said that "its ability to carry large payloads long distances and land on remote airfields has made it an ideal platform in counterinsurgency and humanitarian operations."

Rather than wait for the new defense bill, Bond asked that the money be added to the current supplemental defense bill, saying that airlift capabilities are at an emergency level because the military has been "flying the paint off these critical, strategic lift assets...in moving supplies and troops into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan."

Bond also decried the decision before the scheduled completion in June of a military study that will provide "important insight into future strategic and tactical airlift needs."

"We cannot ignore the fact that the C-17 is the last remaining strategic airlift production line in the nation, and shutting down this line prematurely may prove costly for the American taxpayer," Bond wrote. "Across the United States, 30,000 people from 43 states go to work each day in support of the production of the C-17. Both the Air Force and the contractor have indicated that restarting a closed production line is prohibitively expensive."

Keeping the line going would also allow the prospect of future foreign sales to England, Australia, Canada, Qatar and a consortium of European nations, Bond said.

Bond, who met recently with Boeing executives to discuss the situation, says he also plans to work with Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo. the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to try to restore some of the programs. Bond plans to grill Gates on how he plans to meet national defense needs, given that the Joint Strike Fighter is "way behind schedule and over budget."

More broadly, Bond and Akin allege that the hit Boeing stands to take from the budget could damage the country's industrial defense base by reducing Boeing's future capacity.

They also complain about Obama's overall plan to cut the rate of increase of defense spending in a turbulent world. The $534 billion in funding sought for the Pentagon represents a 1.7 percent increase over this year's figure, compared to annual increases of about 5 percent over the past decade.

Akin says that while Obama "is pushing for mind-boggling increases in domestic spending, the one place he wants to cut spending is defense. This makes no sense."

Democrats in the Missouri delegation are less critical of the administration's plans, but they still plan to be vigilant.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, applauds Gates' effort to curb spending where possible. But the Missouri Democrat adds, "All too often, defense programs go over budget and face delays. The Boeing...Super Hornet project is a critical program that has served as a model of how defense appropriations should work. Hard-working Missourians have consistently delivered all F-/-18s...on time and on budget."

Carnahan termed the Super Hornet "the aviation backbone of the Navy's aircraft carriers."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says she's "very supportive of Secretary Gates' efforts to get costs under control at the Pentagon" - especially because "weapons systems have routinely come in obscenely over budget."

At the same time, McCaskill pledges to "take a close look at his take on F/A-18s and C-17s."

"That impacts St. Louis jobs and deserves close scrutiny," she says. "But clearly some tough decisions have to be made."

That accurately describes his task, Gates indicated earlier this month.

"This budget presents an opportunity, one of those rare chances...to critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements," he said. "It is one thing to speak generally about the need for budget discipline and acquisition and contract reform. It is quite another to make tough choices about specific systems and defense priorities based solely on the national interest."

Hometown interests or real security concerns?

The strong words of the area's Republican legislators and even the more muted concerns of the Democrats raise the question of whether these are self-serving claims or point to real problems of national security.

Addressing that requires looking more closely at several issues: Are Boeing and St. Louis taking a true hit? If so, does this raise legitimate questions about security gaps or the nation's future industrial defense base? And are the choices being made reasonable or risky ones?

Analysts agree that Boeing stands to be hurt more than other contractors by the budget, but beyond that are few clear answers.

"Boeing took some serious hits," says Hellman, who is with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. "One of the reasons Boeing is taking such a big hit is that they've been successful in winning top Pentagon contracts in recent years."

Hellman is somewhat dismissive of the argument that defense capacity will be hurt, calling that the typical argument made when a contractor's programs are cut. He says Boeing has a "vibrant commercial (airplane) sector to support" the company in tough times.

And none of the cuts should come as a surprise, Hellman says, though he adds that reasonable counter-arguments can be made on the basis of national security.

The C-17, for example, has been living on borrowed time in recent years, surviving largely "as a result of congressional add-ons," he says. Hellman calls it "an overpriced Cadillac doing a pick-up Ford's job," but adds that the military currently has no other plane that can provide strategic mobility.

While the Super Hornet stands out for how frequently it's been used on regular missions, the plane's fate runs up against a Pentagon desire to make the Joint Strike Fighter the plane of the future, and ordering more Super Hornets could create a political obstacle to that objective, Hellman says.

Akin and Bond have a credible point about the potential for future gaps on aircraft carriers, given current operational tempo and wear and tear on existing planes, but the Super Hornet isn't being eliminated and if Gates decides in two or three years that more are needed he could ask for a surge in production, Hellman says.

The Future Combat Systems faces twin obstacles, Hellman says: It's a complex and broad program with questions about where it's heading, and the price tag is enormous.

"Because it was such a large pot of money, it's been an easy target for budget cutters," he says, adding that it's too early to assess whether eliminating the vehicle program would hurt national security.

Boeing executives say they see both risks and opportunities in the budgetary proposals.

Jim Albaugh, who runs Boeing's St. Louis-based defense business, has said that the company is still analyzing "precisely what the impacts to us and the customer are." Prospects are promising for new areas such as cyber-security, special operations and unmanned vehicle markets, all of which may benefit from Gates' effort to address unconventional threats. Possible international sales by year's end may boost the C-17 line, he added.

At the same time, Boeing's chief executive, James McNerney, acknowledges that some of Boeing's longstanding programs, such as Future Combat Systems, stand to be affected -- depending on what Congress does. He predicts a rigorous debate between legislators and the Pentagon over the next several months.

Battles ahead

Gordon Adams, who was a White House official for national security budgeting in the Clinton administration, applauded Gates for exercising "discipline" he says was missing over the past eight years. "We have enough C-17s," Adams says, and the Future Combat Systems has faced problems, he adds.

That said, Adams predicts the proposals "will face hard going in Congress, where the advocates of yesterday's programs are numerous."

Skelton calls Gates' statements "a good-faith effort" and says the budget proposal properly "identifies defense acquisition reform as a top concern."

"However, the buck stops with Congress, which has the critical constitutional responsibility to decide whether to support these proposals," Skelton says, adding that "my colleagues and I will carefully consider these proposals...as we prepare the Fiscal Year 2010 defense authorization act."

While the country's economic situation poses a challenge, Skelton says, his committee's "first responsibility is to keep the American people safe."

The activity in Congress will only increase, and the outcomes are unpredictable, Hellman says, especially because defense contractors such as Boeing spread work out over dozens of states -- partly to broaden political support.

"Gates will never get everything he cares about," Hellman says. "At the end of the day, all politics is local and jobs are a huge driver in supporting a lot of these programs. For congressional delegations, it's impossible to separate the two (jobs and national security). You hope that programs succeed based on their strategic need, but elected officials are acutely aware of jobs." 

Philip Dine, a Washington-based national security and labor reporter, is author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence."