WASHINGTON: For an illustration of why the federal government has become so unmanageable, consider the Air Force’s attempt last year to cut its budget by retiring unneeded warplanes. This sensible policy ran into a shredder — largely because of the political clout of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve.
Governors united across party lines to protest the potential loss of their pet C-130s and other planes. Members of Congress lined up behind the potent lobbying pressure of the Guard and the reserves. The result: The Air Force was ordered not to make the cuts it thought were best for the nation’s defense, and instead had to retain scores of planes it wanted to retire.
This is another depressing example of a problem I’ve written about in recent columns — the growing enfeeblement of the federal government as a result of our broken political system. Find an area of policy where politicians are able to intrude, as in planning the military force structure, and you’re almost guaranteed to find a result that is skewed by lobbying and horse-trading.
“Parochial politics have overwhelmed our government institutions,” says John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense who now heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Politicians decide their personal needs are superior to the professional judgments of the people who run the military.”
Here’s how the numbers (and the public interest) got crunched: The Air Force began last year with a proposal for cutting forces to meet the Obama’s administration’s strategic review. The cuts would total more than 220 aircraft in fiscal 2013, including five squadrons of A-10 ground attack planes and one squadron each of F-16 and F-15 fighters. Also slated for retirement were 27 C-5A transport planes, 38 C-27 transports and 65 C-130s. With half of the C-130 fleet in the Guard and reserve units, these transport planes are especially beloved by governors.
The rationale for the cuts made strategic sense. The planes being retired had been suitable for Iraq and Afghanistan, but the military needed to concentrate on potential future adversaries. The Air Force also judged that the reserve forces had become swollen over the decade of war, growing to 35 percent of total force strength in 2012 from 25 percent in 1990.
The Air Force plan produced a “firestorm,” says John Goheen, the spokesman of the National Guard Association. Governors protested that they hadn’t been adequately consulted, and that the cuts had been made in secret. They quickly wrote a collective protest letter.
Enter Congress: Legislators reacted to political pressure by mandating a rewrite of the fiscal 2013 planning — to keep more planes for the reserves and the Guard. Three of the five A-10 squadrons slated to be cut were restored; most of the planned cuts of C-5As were restored; and 30 of the C-130 and C-27 transporters were saved.
The congressional revision tilts the overall cuts toward active-duty forces — i.e., the folks who are supposed to keep the country safe. The Air Force had originally proposed that by fiscal 2017, it would cut 7,400 Guard and reserve positions and 4,200 active-duty slots. Instead, in the congressional version, the active duty forces will be slashed by 6,100 while the Guard will lose only 1,400 billets and the reserves won’t lose any.
Maj. Gen. Mike Holmes, who reviews force planning for the Air Force, describes the basic impasse this way: “If you reduce our budget but don’t allow us to reduce forces or reduce deployment around the world, how do you do that?”
Even the governors and members of Congress recognized that this outcome was a mess. So they did what they often do when told to cut military goodies: They created a commission. It’s now holding hearings on the proper force structure for the Air Force. The panel is the equivalent of the BRAC process that dealt with base closings a decade ago.
“If you’re a governor, you want your own C-130,” explains Janine Davidson, a member of the commission and a former C-17 pilot and deputy assistant secretary of defense. She says the commission will weigh arguments that the reserve forces have cost advantages and serve regional needs. “It makes sense if you’re a governor, but if you’re Air Force chief of staff you have to think about the global mission.”
Somehow, it’s that last part — the national interest — that tends to get lost in today’s Washington. Somebody has to start fixing a political system that doesn’t work to serve the public.
Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.