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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

A Plane as a Budget Lesson

While the computer woes of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) continue to dominate all minds inside the Beltway it is easy to forget that we are just weeks downstream from the 16 day government shutdown and more weeks away from another more-likely-than-not clash over spending and debt that leads us to who knows what.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairs of the Congressional budget committees, continue talking in an effort to craft a federal budget deal that will soften the impact of the so called “sequestration” cuts; the cuts that have dented, without much thought or precision, virtually every budget from the Pentagon to the Centers for Disease Control.

As Politico notes “it is still entirely likely that the talks could fall apart, leading to yet another bitter partisan impasse, something that once again seemed possible after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the spending issue at a closed-door House GOP Conference on Tuesday. And any deal would be small in comparison to the $17.1 trillion national debt, potentially with proposals to replace one year of sequestration cuts — worth $110 billion — or something smaller, with more targeted cuts.”

Enter the Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft as a perfect object lesson of why controlling federal spending is so difficult – maybe even impossible. Earlier this year the Air Force served notice it was looking at a potential phase out of the A-10, a single-purpose aircraft that has, by most accounts, proved its utility as a weapon to support ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The plane was originally envisioned in the 1970’s as a “tank killer” when U.S. war planners were still worried about Soviet military designs on Europe. The A-10, long a staple of Air National Guard units in at least nine state – including Idaho – could, the Air Force says, be replaced by a new generation multi-purpose aircraft, the F-35A.

In a nutshell, Air Force brass say the demands of sequestration, budgeting by across-the-board cuts imposed by a Congress unable or unwilling to make hard decisions about priorities, leaves them scrambling to make billions in spending cuts over the next ten years. Given the development of a new multi-purpose aircraft, which just happens to be the most expensive weapons system ever invented, maybe, just maybe the A-10’s days are numbered.

Air National Guard director Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke III, himself once a pilot of the plane known as The Warthog, recently said the Air Force was “looking at reducing single mission aircraft” and under the sequestration process “we’re not getting any more money.”

The Air Force, Clarke said, “has to have a fifth generation force out there” of stealthy, fast and maneuverable aircraft, and the low and slow A-10 just didn’t fit in.

But wait a just a gosh darn minute says a bi-partisan group in Congress most of whom would happily call themselves deficit hawks. Missouri’s two Senators, a Democrat and Republican, Idaho’s Mike Crapo and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte have taken the lead, along with legislators from, among other places, Arkansas, Georgia and Arizona, in telling Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to take it easy on the A-10.

“We write to express our deep concern regarding the Air Force’s plan to divest the A-10 Thunderbolt II,” the letter says before touching on the obvious. “We appreciate that the Air Force confronts significant budget pressure and uncertainty that require difficult decisions.” They might well have added, just don’t make decisions we disagree with.

The late Tip O’Neill famously said “all politics is local” and that is doubly true of A-10 Air Force politics. It is no coincidence that National Guard units in Idaho, Missouri, Arizona, Georgia and Arkansas fly the A-10 and basing those aircraft in a state means millions to the local economy. Sen. Ayotte apparently has her own local political consideration. Her husband once flew an A-10. A front page column in today’s Arizona Daily Star in Tucson takes the state’s two Republican Senators – John McCain and Jeff Flake – to task for staying out, at least so far, of the fray over the future of the A-10. The piece speculates that McCain and Flake are really holding out for the new generation F-35 aircraft to be based at Phoenix’s Luke Air Force Base and are willing to sacrifice the current A-10 mission at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base at Tucson in order to make nice to the Air Force.

All of this could easily be written off to typical home state support for an air force base and mission if so much money weren’t involved. Congress, after all, and both parties are responsible, has created a budget environment where rationale decision making based on national priorities long ago ceased to exist. Just for the record Bloomberg reports that the Pentagon’s “projected price tag of $391.2 billion for a fleet of 2,443 [F-35] aircraft is a 68 percent increase from the projection in 2001, as measured in current dollars. The number of aircraft also is 409 fewer than called for in the original program.” That is generally referred to as less for more budgeting.

Air Force and Pentagon brass, who knew how to play old Washington budget game of spreading around the missions and the weapons production, have now been left with a series of bad options and have not surprisingly concluded that they apparently can’t really have it all – a new, ultra-expensive aircraft that is costing billions more than expected and the continuation of an old, tried-and-true warhorse.

Since we’re talking tradeoffs: the average $29 a month food stamp cut now being absorbed by 47 million Americans is projected to save $39 billion over the next decade and has been justified by its proponents as a necessary step that closes “loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.”

Of course many of the same legislators who are telling the Air Force not to be in a rush to phase out the old A-10 until it can demonstrate that the new F-35 has proven that it is worth every nickel of the $391 billion and climbing we are spending on it would be the first to make a sober speech about the necessity of bringing the federal budget under control, including doing something about awful runaway spending on food for some of the poorest Americans.

Rarely are the dilemmas of a completely broken Washington, where budgets that often lack any strategic purpose are regularly made on the fly and by the seat of the pants, better illustrated than in the current fight over an old, slow airplane. Oh, yes, we might also note that with a U.S. combat role ended in Iraq and coming to an end in Afghanistan the U.S. still continues to spend more on its military – a cool $668 billion last year – than all of Asia, Europe and Russia combined.

I’m still waiting for the speech that explains how that level of military spending puts the country on a fiscally responsible path.

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