Everyone — except appropriators — agree no more C-17s needed in budget

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Bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate committees with the most expertise on military affairs oppose buying more Boeing-built C-17 cargo aircraft to transport troops, supplies, and equipment. So did the Bush administration, and now so does the Obama White House. Even the Pentagon and Air Force say the U.S. military doesn’t need any more C-17s, which cost more than $250 million apiece.

However, over four years, Congress has added money to the Defense Department’s budget for a total of 43 unrequested C-17s. What gives? Simply put: The powerful House and Senate appropriations committees.

“Let’s be clear: the only thing sustaining the C-17 program in the face of a military requirement that is, and will likely remain satisfied, is the predominance of the military-industrial complex,” said John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on a Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee. “These machinations should end.”

The locus of those machinations is well known, but over the course of a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, only McCain named the culprit directly: congressional appropriators.

“Neither the House nor Senate fiscal year 2011 Defense Authorization bills contain funding for the C-17,” McCain said in a written statement. “Whether the Appropriations Committees will continue this policy remains to be seen.”

Last year, neither the House or Senate Armed Service Committee authorized funding for the C-17 program, yet it still received approximately $2.5 billion in the annual Pentagon spending bill approved by appropriators, McCain added.

At the hearing, McCain and subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper of Delaware sought to build a case showing that the Pentagon has more airlift capacity than it needs with an existing fleet of 223 C-17s plus 111 older but larger C-5 aircraft. Modernizing the aging C-5s was more cost-effective than replacing them with new C-17s, they said.

“A modernized C-5 carries twice as much and flies twice as far as a C-17 and costs half as much as a new C-17. For the cost of one new C-17, two C-5s could be modernized and get four times the airlift capability,” Carper said in a statement.

There wasn’t disagreement from the Defense Department witnesses. “We do not need any more C-17s,” said Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins, the chief of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, which is in charge of the Air Force’s airlift.

“It’s not going to be cost effective if we have more than we already need,” echoed Michael McCord, an official in the Pentagon comptroller’s office.

Congressional Research Service analyst Jeremy Gertler alluded to the real issue in diplomatic language – which is understandable since he works for Congress. “Congress uses its Constitutional authority to add programs and/or unrequested funding for existing programs for many reasons,” Gertler said in testimony at the hearing. “One reason commonly believed to motivate additions to DOD’s requests – even when it isn’t the actual impetus – is constituent benefit.”

Left unsaid at the subcommittee hearing was the well-known fact that Missouri Republican Kit Bond and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein both sit on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Boeing’s C-17 production lines are in St. Louis, Mo., and Long Beach, Calif., with the latter plant employing an estimated 5,000 workers. Both senators voted against an attempt by McCain to strip last year’s appropriations bill of funding for C-17, which failed on the Senate floor, 68-30.

But after noting Congress’ motivation to keep weapons programs alive to for home state jobs, Gertler hurried to add that “it would be simplistic and inaccurate to tar all votes for unrequested systems with the constituent-interest brush.” Policy disagreements, a desire to maintain production capabilities, and a hedge against future uncertainties are other reasons why lawmakers might want to buck the executive branch’s view, he wrote.

McCain was not quite as equivocal as Gertler. “When decisions are made to start or continue new major weapons programs, the needs of the warfighter must preside – not the profit-maximizing tendencies of Industry or the strictly parochial interests of Congress,” he said. “After billions of dollars wasted over the last few years, the C-17 program presents the clearest case why, in this regard, we must do better.”

The Senate and House appropriations committees have yet to report out their defense spending bills for fiscal 2011, which begins Oct. 1.

In May, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Defense Subcommittee, told Defense Daily that House appropriators were likely to add funding for more C-17s and that his committee will “usually go along with” those kinds of additions to the defense appropriations bill.

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