Politics

Top Democrat chastises parochial move on defense

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Republicans and Democrats who rebuff this year's budget-driven Pentagon cuts in aircraft, ships, bases and benefits put the military at risk of being less than ready for the next crisis, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state called on his colleagues to accept the Pentagon's plea for another round of defense base closures, cuts in the A-10 Warthog fleet, trims in military benefits and other budget proposals. Smith warned that the congressional scramble to spare the programs will force the military to reduce the resources used to train the force.

In a year or two, Smith said, that would force warfighters to accept levels of risks that the military has tried to reduce. "If we don't take those steps," Smith said of the proposed budget cuts, "then we are creating a completely untenable situation."

He described how efforts to save weapons, bases and benefits will mean less money spent on fuel for planes and less ammunition, resulting in a hollow force that is not prepared to fight. Smith spoke one day after a House panel rejected Pentagon efforts to trim benefits such as housing allowances and subsidies to military commissaries as well as changes to the health care system known as TRICARE that would mean a slight increase in out-of-pocket costs to military families and retirees.

Several lawmakers argue that it's wrong to cut benefits that attract men and women to serve in the all-volunteer force. "The worst thing we can do is basically what we're doing," Smith said at a forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The Armed Services Committee is scheduled to draft its version of the annual defense policy bill on Wednesday and the full House will consider the legislation the week of May 19. Smith said he planned to offer an amendment to the bill authorizing another round of military base closings, a move the Pentagon has requested but lawmakers repeatedly reject.

Smith acknowledged that he would likely lose the vote. The Pentagon has proposed a budget of $495.6 billion for fiscal 2015, but faces deeper cuts in projected spending if Congress and the Obama administration can't agree on a long-term deal to avoid automatic cuts after 2016.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in an article in The Wall Street Journal, made a similar argument. "Congress has limited the discretion of the secretary, placed limits on force reductions and blocked procurement and compensation reform. The only place Congress has forced reductions, unfortunately, is in the readiness of the force," Panetta wrote.

He said President Barack Obama and leaders in Congress "must be willing to make difficult budget decisions — and, yes, compromises —that involve political risks."

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