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McHugh: GOP Likes Reform but Is Skeptical of Details

During my tenure in Congress, few budgets have been as greatly awaited as the details of the Obama administration’s fiscal 2010 request for the Department of Defense, which is expected to arrive on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks. This anticipation was underscored recently with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates churning up debate within the defense community by announcing a reorganization of priorities at the Defense Department.

Republicans in Congress appreciate the administration’s efforts to shape the department so we can more effectively fight the wars our troops are engaged in today. However, from the initial details that have been released through the media, we remain deeply concerned about the trade-offs involved in the so-called re-balancing of the Pentagon. In preparing the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2010, Members on the House Armed Services Committee must understand the assumptions regarding the threats that drove these conclusions so we might make the appropriate decisions about which capabilities America’s military does and does not require.

In addition, the administration has announced that it intends to shift enduring costs previously included in wartime supplemental spending bills into the base defense budget. This is an action that Republicans and Democrats should support; however, such a decision should not be made in a vacuum. If implemented by the Congress as currently proposed, absent commensurate increases, this proposal would be tantamount to significantly reducing current spending on defense, potentially opening or widening holes in our capabilities and forcing difficult decisions between sustaining the size of the military or purchasing critical weapons systems.

In order to relieve stress on America’s ground combat forces, former President George W. Bush followed the lead of the Congress, and, in January 2007, called for increases in the permanent size (end strength) of the Army and Marine Corps. The active-duty Army and Marine Corps are expected to achieve their desired end strength goals of 547,400 and 202,000 before the end of fiscal 2009 — four and two years ahead of schedule, respectively.

The Army National Guard has already exceeded its end strength objective of 358,200 while the Army Reserve is on track to reach its authorization level of 206,000 in the early months of fiscal 2010. In addition, the Air Force and Navy have abandoned their efforts to decrease their force structure as previously planned.

These additional soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines arrive with a significant price tag — an increase of approximately $11 billion over the fiscal 2009 budget level — that must be sustained every year.

Some in Congress have suggested that the military services will have to reduce end strength in order to afford the costs of resetting or modernizing the force. As we clearly saw in the past decade, however, end strength cannot be grown overnight. Additionally, given that operational tempo will undoubtedly remain high for the foreseeable future as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, it would be a grave error in judgment and a significant injustice to our military men and women, and their families, to cut the size of the services.

Still others argue that curtailing the cost of weapons programs through reforms to the defense acquisition system will generate sufficient revenue to offset this move. Given the conventional and asymmetric threats that exist around the world, this assumption is both naïve and dangerous. Any cost savings that might be realized will come with great effort and only in the longer term. In short, this approach, while laudable, does nothing to solve the budget challenges currently facing this nation.

Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and I, along with several of our Armed Services Committee colleagues, recently introduced legislation that adds a committee voice to the ongoing efforts to reform the defense acquisition process. Similar to the bill introduced by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), our proposal would create a more transparent procurement system, with added competition and independent scrutiny.

While creating an “intensive care— for programs that have already entered into production, our approach focuses heavily on the early stages of development when most of the sins of troubled programs are created. This should enable the Defense Department and military services to save significant money on new starts, thus providing better outcomes over the life of these weapons programs.

Given that budget details have yet to be delivered to Capitol Hill, we have relied upon media reports for information that suggest the Obama administration’s new budget will support few, if any, new programs. As a result, the number of initiatives that can reap advantage from the reforms proposed by the Senate and the House legislation are likely to be small. While Republicans and Democrats alike should support Gates’ commitment to defense acquisition reform, such efforts must effectively use taxpayer dollars to improve national security without becoming a tool to effect defense spending cuts.

Considering the scope of these significant challenges, many of us had hoped that the budget resolution crafted by our Democratic colleagues and passed in the House last week would have provided for a higher level of defense funding. Consistent with the Armed Services Committee’s long-standing tradition, we Republicans intend to work in a bipartisan fashion with our Democratic colleagues and the Obama administration in a serious effort to build a budget that both ensures America’s national security and provides the men and women of our military, and their families, with the support they so richly deserve.

Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) is ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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