Gates stares down Congress over Air Force funding

Gates stares down Congress over Air Force funding

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates‘s push to change how the Defense Department sets its strategic and spending priorities faces its next major test in Congress Thursday, and Gates is heavily involved in seeing it through behind the scenes.

"The attacks of September 11th, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which brings us to the situation we face and the choices we have today — as a defense department and as a country," Gates said in a May 8 speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. "Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time."

There’s a torrent of speculation that Gates will leave office early next year (he’s only said he will reevaluate at years’ end), and Gates has been giving a series of speeches leveling harsh criticisms of the way the United States goes about organizing and funding its national security infrastructure. Given the entrenched interests on Capitol Hill, within the military, and in the wider defense community, it’s the kind of initiative only an official with unassailable credibility and the freedom of not worrying about his next job can pull off.

Gates successfully won his first battle with Congress, ending production of the F-22 fighter, through a mixture of public and private moves that showed his deft ability to play both an inside and an outside political game.

His next big battle kicks off tomorrow, when lawmakers will try to thwart Gates’s effort to rein in the other major fighter program, the F-35, by finally canceling plans to build a second engine model for the plane.

Every year, successive administrations have submitted budgets without the engine funding, while lawmakers add about $500 million to build a second engine for the F-35. And every year, Congress has won, getting the funding approved and avoiding a veto. This year could be different.

Gates is serious about this year’s veto threat. He deployed Ashton Carter, the under secretary of defense for acquisitions, to the Hill today to make the case privately behind the scenes. Carter is arguing for an amendment (pdf) put forth by House leadership member John Larson, D-CT, Chellie Pingree, D-ME, and  Rep. Tom Rooney, R-FL, that would strip the bill of the funds.

Gates is expected to send a letter in support of the amendment Thursday when the bill hits the House floor.

It’s an oversimplification to say that Gates wants to cut the overall level of defense spending. His chief ambition is to cut waste and compel each service to find areas to bring down their costs. "This can only work if the services are incentivized to cut costs, they can keep what they catch," said Pentaon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

But this latest initiaive dovetails with Gates other main initiative, to rebalance military spending toward the current conflicts, which necessarily means more pressure on the budgets of the Air Force and the Navy.

The F-35 program, which has been years delayed and billions over budget, is at the top of his target list for cuts.

"Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?," Gates asked in the speech. "These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today."

It’s very plausible that Congress will ignore Gates’s plea and send the bill with the F-35 engine money in it to Obama, daring him to make himself a target by vetoing a national-security bill. But Gates is laying down political cover for the president on this one, making a public case for the cuts while simultaneously working behind the scenes.

"What is required going forward is not more study. Nor do we need more legislation. It is not a great mystery what needs to change. What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out."