By Colin Clark
Editor, AOL Defense
WASHINGTON -- The battle over the defense budget took a new turn, with The New York Times issuing a rare lead editorial about defense in which it called for steep cuts to some of the Pentagon's biggest weapons programs. In reply, one of the most senior House experts on defense rebutted the paper's call for major weapons cuts.
The Times editorial said the Pentagon should: terminate the Marine Corps version of the Joint Strike Fighter; cut the rest of the Joint Strike Fighter buy in half; kill the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor program; slice one carrier group and reduce the number of air wings by one. At the same time, the paper did not call for any cuts to the number of military personnel. It did call for a cut of 10 percent to the civilian Defense Department workforce.
Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces, dismissed the Times' reasoning.
"If you took a look at the numbers from 1990 to the present, what you find is that in military strength in macro numbers, the number of soldiers, the number of ships, the number of aircraft is 50 percent of where we were in 1990," Akin said.
The real budget problem, Akin said, is that civilian entitlements "are out of control." You could cut the entire defense budget, as well as all non-defense discretionary spending -- which does not include entitlements -- and you would just get to a balanced budget at the cost of "no prisons, no state parks, no House, no Senate, no departments of Energy, Commerce, Justice..."
Entitlements, Akin said yesterday at a ceremony at Boeing's F/A-18 plant here to celebrate delivery of the 500th Boeing Super Hornet, have grown from 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 1965 to 13 percent now. Over the same period, defense spending dropped to 4 percent of GDP from 9 percent.
Akin's conclusion: "So cutting defense is dealing with the wrong problem. Defense is down; defense has been cut. "
Last week's GOP budget plan called for virtually no cuts to the defense budget.
The man in charge of the F-35 program, which would suffer most grievously should the Times' recommendations be adopted, replied very carefully today that the decision to cut would have to come from someone above his pay grade. Vice Adm. David Venlet told me that large cuts would increase the price of each plane, something the eight allied countries that plan to buy substantial numbers of the plane, would find painful. When a country reduces the number of a weapon it buys, that often dramatically increase the politically sensitive unit cost of the system. That can set up a death spiral where the price becomes politically unsupportable and the system is killed.
Venlet met yesterday with the senior acquisition official from each of the nine: the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Norway. Israel also plans to buy F-35s but is not considered a program partner since it is not helping to fund the research and development phase.
Britain has already pulled out of the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35, as part of its defense budget scrub. Italy, which plans to buy substantial numbers of the more expensive and complex STOVL version, is especially concerned about any more reductions to that program.
The admiral noted that the test program has accelerated substantially since the beginning of the year. The three models of the F-35 have collectively flown 1092 hours. The air force version, known as the F-35A, has logged 295 flights for 520 hours. The carrier version, known as the F-35C, boasts a more modest 53 flights with 81 hours, but the carrier version is quite similar to the air force version. Its greatest testing will come during carrier takeoffs and landings. The complex and troubled Marine version of the plane, the F-35B, has made 379 flights for 490 hours in the air, Venlet said.
The program faces an important Defense Acquisition Board meeting at the end of May and the Pentagon has begun talks with maker Lockheed Martin about the fifth early production contract. "We are going to need to show that costs are under control," said Venlet, who is becoming a master of the careful answer as he guides the largest defense program in American history.