NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Just three months ago, President Barack Obama blasted lawmakers for pumping billions of dollars into weapons the Pentagon hadn’t requested.
Now his administration is touting some of those same weapons as crucial for combating the Islamic State and for deterring a rising China and a resurgent Russia.
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The turnabout is causing a major credibility problem for the Defense Department ahead of Tuesday’s release of the president’s new budget proposal, key lawmakers told POLITICO. Republican defense hawks spent the last year opposing the department’s efforts to retire the aging A-10 Warthog attack jet and stop buying Tomahawk missiles and F-18 Super Hornet fighters — the very weapons getting praise now from Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Rep. Mac Thornberry and Sen. John McCain, who chair the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, are already gloating over what they see as a small victory in their larger battle with Obama over military spending.
“I think it harms their credibility because they’re changing positions,” said McCain. “It’s also, I think, an argument for congressional action.”
Thornberry, meanwhile, said Pentagon leaders are “entitled to their opinions.” But, the Texas Republican noted, Congress “also has opinions,” and some of those opinions are now looking “pretty good in hindsight.”
Carter, who flew out West to preview the Pentagon’s $583 billion budget submission, announced the reversals during the last week. They’re partly a sign of the changing of the Pentagon’s guard, more than a year after the departure of former secretary Chuck Hagel, and partly a reflection of the expanding threats confronting an administration that originally pinned its hopes on resetting relations with Russia and winding down George W. Bush’s wars.
The trip amounted to a good news tour for the defense chief, who told sailors, airmen and Marines in California and Nevada about programs that would get a boost in the administration’s spending proposal for fiscal 2017, while declining to list programs that would lose out.
Those details, Carter said, wouldn’t be available until Tuesday’s official budget roll–out.
Among the programs Carter touted were A-10s, Super Hornets and Tomahawk missiles. This is a complete turnaround from last year, when all three programs were on the chopping block.
In its previous budget, the Air Force urged Congress to greenlight its plan to divest its 1970s-era Warthogs — renowned for their ability to fly low and slow to provide close-air support for troops on the ground — to free up funds for more advanced jets such as the Lockheed Martin-made F-35. And the Navy sought to reduce purchases of Raytheon-made Tomahawk cruise missiles and zero out purchases of Boeing-made Super Hornets, although it placed the fighters on its list of “unfunded priorities” — lists often used to signal to Congress items the services want but were prohibited from buying because of budget constraints.
In June, the White House specifically urged Congress not to fund the Super Hornets, saying that “extra programs inserted in the budget come at the expense of programs that are more important and will create ripple effects across the rest of the budget.”
But Congress overruled the White House in all three cases, using the annual defense authorization and appropriations bills to require the Air Force to keep flying A-10s and to fund additional Tomahawks and Super Hornets for the Navy. Obama criticized those decisions in November, saying he was “disappointed that the Congress failed to enact meaningful reforms to divest unneeded force structure.”
“Congress has made a decision on the A-10 for several years in a row that is different from the administration proposal, and now they’re coming around and saying basically that we were right,” Thornberry said in an interview. “The same is true for the Tomahawks — that line would have been dead if we had not kept it going at a minimally sustainable rate.”
As one Republican House aide put it, “It strikes me that a number of the investments the department is bragging about this year would not be possible unless Congress had rejected cuts proposed in past years.”
On his budget tour, Carter pointed to all three weapons as examples of important tools to defeat ISIL and deter China and Russia. And he praised the A-10 for “devastating ISIL from the air.”
The new budget, he said, would defer “the A-10’s final retirement until 2022, replacing it with F-35s on a squadron-by-squadron basis so we’ll always have enough aircraft for today’s conflicts.”
The reversals are, in part, a function of high turnover among Obama’s Pentagon chiefs.
Last year’s budget was crafted under Hagel, who was pushed out in late 2014. Carter, the president’s fourth defense secretary, comes at the budget from a new perspective, seeking to refocus the military in favor of programs that would contribute to a high-end fight against potential rivals like China and Russia.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook also noted that the global security landscape has changed dramatically over the past year. Previous budget proposals, he said, didn’t anticipate the continuing U.S.-led air campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
“We’re constantly reassessing,” he said.
Still, the lack of a consistent message from the Pentagon on its spending priorities has led to trust issues on Capitol Hill — and has made it even easier for lawmakers to simply ignore the department’s budget proposals.
One glaring example cited by lawmakers and defense analysts was the effort to mothball a variant of the Global Hawk surveillance drone in 2012, in favor of keeping the U-2 spy plane. The Pentagon, then under Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, made a detailed case for why the U-2 was more cost effective.
Congress blocked the retirement. The next year, the Pentagon’s budget called for keeping the Northrop Grumman-made Global Hawk and retiring the U-2. And the following year, the Pentagon opted to keep both flying.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that “it can take just a year for a service’s reputation for analytical rigor to be lost but a half-decade or more to regain it.”
“When the Pentagon seems inconsistent over one year or several with its requests, it swings wide open a door already cracked because of previous inconsistencies and allows lawmakers to easily prevail in overturning the decisions,” she said. “These reversals also hurt the general perception of service leadership credibility and trustworthiness.”
In some cases, however, the course correction is just a realization that a proposal to cut something is futile.
Todd Harrison, the director for defense budget analysis at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that some of the reversals could represent the Pentagon’s acceptance that Congress just wouldn’t ever agree to certain reductions.
“In many cases,” he said, “the position the department takes depends on its perception of the prevailing political winds more than analysis.”
At the conservative Heritage Foundation, defense analyst Justin Johnson said that “a lot of how this plays in Congress will depend on how the Pentagon articulates why they changed their mind on these programs.”
“Tomahawk, A-10, Super Hornet and the like are a bit different because the argument for cutting them was largely a question of investing in future capabilities versus maintaining current capabilities,” he explained. “DoD can honestly say that these platforms have become more important in the last year or two, due to operational needs, and so it makes sense to keep them on board longer.”
For Carter, credibility will be key as he seeks to sell the new budget on Capitol Hill. He’s expected to step down in early 2017 when the next president installs a new secretary, so this is his one chance to put a legacy-defining stamp on Pentagon spending. But he’ll face a skeptical audience.
“Here’s what you don’t have at the Pentagon, in just the last couple of years, is consistency,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “I don’t think they lose any credibility because they haven’t had any credibility to begin with the last couple years.”
For Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, a senior Democrat on the Armed Services panel, the situation is proof that Congress is capable of making good decisions.
“For the cynics out there who think Congress can’t do anything right,” he said, “if you’re around here long enough, you actually see, you know, the opposite is true.”