Pentagon budget woes: furlough civilians, buy tanks you don't want

Once again, the Pentagon wants to scrap a weapon – in this case, the Abrams tank – that Congress has an interest in preserving. But with 'sequester' cuts, the tradeoff will be civilian furloughs.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno testifies on Capitol Hill on April 23. The Army’s hulking Abrams tank, built to dominate the enemy in combat, is proving to be equally hard to beat in a budget battle, because of a bipartisan push to spend an extra $436 million on tanks, which the Pentagon does not want.

Even as the Pentagon struggles to make some tough, congressionally mandated cuts to its budget, lawmakers are now trying to force defense officials to buy expensive equipment that the military insists US troops do not need.

The most recent example of this congressional arm-twisting involves the hulking, 70-ton Abrams tank. 

In the face of sequestration (the 10-year plan to cut federal spending by $1.2 trillion that went into effect March 1), the US military has warned that it will have to trim back on crucial troop training exercises and maintenance. 

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described as "heart-wrenching" the cuts that the military is currently being forced to make – including to child development programs and schools on military bases – when he spoke last week at a town hall meetingwith US troops stationed in Japan.

The service branches are trying to stave off civilian furloughs.

For civilians who work alongside US forces in critical support jobs in the midst of war, “this issue of furlough hangs over you,” General Dempsey says. “And I am personally embarrassed about that, frankly – it’s not the way to treat people.” 

“We’ll get through it,” he adds of the sequester cuts, “but we’re being extraordinarily careful about how we spend our money.”

And as the war in Afghanistan winds down, the US military has already signaled what it sees as some of the next big trends in warfare. This includes cyberattacks – staving them off, as well as launching them – for which senior military officials say they desperately need more trained cyberspecialists.

The US military will also continue to monitor and strike complicated terrorist networks in places where the US troops – for reasons of politics and cost – will not put boots on the ground. For this reason, senior military officials have told Congress that they want more intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) assets, such as the Predator and Reaper drones.

None of these requests includes the Abrams tank. “If we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s top officer, told the Associated Press last week.

No matter on Capitol Hill, where a rare bipartisan coalition is forming to force the military to buy $436 million worth of Abrams tanks that it insists it does not need.

The tank is big money for the congressional district that manufactures them in Lima, Ohio.

In a congressional hearing last week, Gen. William Phillips, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology, attempted to answer the concerns of Rep. Michael Turner (R) of Ohio, whose district includes the Abrams manufacturing plant in Lima – and who also chairs the House Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee.

While telling Representative Turner that “it’s not the Army’s intent to shut down Lima,” General Phillips added: "Having said that, the Army actually has more M1A2 tanks ... is buying more than it actually needs at this point.”

The production of some 67 tanks will extend through December 2014, he pointed out. In the last budget, the Pentagon received another $181 million for 20 to 24 tanks that would be built at the Lima plant, as well.

“That takes us at about two to three per month out to about the middle of ... June 2016 maybe,” Phillips noted. 

In response, Turner pointed out the obvious. “General, I just want to point out that the vehicles that you’re talking about ... were not requested by DOD. If they had not been funded by Congress, this facility would be at risk. If you continue to not fund something, you are, in essence, shutting it down.”

Senior military officials have for months been decrying the tough choices they must make, and as the Pentagon’s strategic shift to the Pacific begins to emphasize naval power, few make the argument that more Abrams tanks are at the top of the list of needs for US troops.

Explained David Welch, deputy director of the Army budget office, earlier this month: “The Army is on record saying we do not require any additional M1A2s.”

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