Despite a mood in Washington to cut federal spending, lawmakers remain just as reluctant to turn the knives on their home districts.
Congress shut down the U.S. Air Force's fiscal 2013 request to reduce the Air National Guard's force structure, instead recommending that the service hold off on reductions until a commission studies the situation.
Before the bill recommending formation of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force becomes law, the Air Force is proposing its own solution: to dramatically scale back cuts to the Air National Guard. It could slash its original personnel reduction by 40%, according to a draft slide from the service.
The change in Air Force plans may splinter the opposition over the district-by-district details of the new proposal, while opening another fight about informing all of the players. Because of the National Guard's unique role in serving federal and state governments, decisions involving it invariably involve a host of politicians—the states' lawmakers, governors and the adjutants general—who can fetter quick action but nonetheless provide political support that has been key to advancing the Guard.
The Air Force is not commenting publicly on its draft proposal for Guard end strength of 105,300, which could also curb by 60% its planned reduction to aircraft fleets.
Fiscal 2013 started on Oct. 1, but the government is operating on a continuing resolution of 2012 spending levels that expires at the end of March.
“No decisions have been made,” stresses Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek, who says the proposal has not been submitted to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “We don't have anything we're speaking about publicly.”
Still, the proposal is making its way through Capitol Hill, where reaction to it is mixed. While the Council of Governors is supportive of “constructive Air Force movement” on the force structure reductions, it is railing against being shut out of the process.
“We cannot accept what we understand to be a 'take it or leave it' proposal without discussion, disclosure of underlying fiscal and operational data without time to consider its merits,” write the council's co-chairs, Govs. Terry Branstad (R-Iowa) and Christine Gregoire (D-Wash.), in a Nov. 15 letter to Air Force leadership.
“Governors are open to working with you to reach an agreement on a budget proposal we can all support for [fiscal] 2013 and 2014,” they continue. “By statute and executive order, the Council of Governors is the forum for this dialogue to take place between governors and theand we stand ready to work with you as expeditiously as possible.”
Gen. Harry Wyatt, director of the Air National Guard, brought in the military leaders of all the state guard bureaus, known as adjutants general, to discuss the proposal on Nov. 2. But because the hastily arranged meeting was scheduled so close to the election, it was difficult for the officials to attend, says a source familiar with the meeting.
Aides on Capitol Hill, who see the Air Force proposal as a legitimate compromise, point out that the governors are not rejecting its substance. Rather, they say the issue is which remaining aircraft and personnel the proposal will recommend cutting, they say.
Another question is how the Air Force will pay to restore force structure. A defense lobbyist says the service is likely to raid flight hours, training and operation, and sustainment accounts. “You go hollow for the year,” he says.
A proposal in the Senate Armed Services Committee's (SASC) fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill asks the Air Force to hold off on reductions to force structure until they are reviewed by a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force that will report back to Congress by March 31, 2013. But even that provision is controversial. A Senate aide contends that the commission will help build a consensus around final decisions, while the defense lobbyist says the military would prefer to settle the matter in-house.
Wyatt's spokeswoman says the Air Force has made it “a priority” to involve the adjutants general in the Guard decisions. Still, “if Congress decides to create a commission, General Wyatt will cooperate with any request for information to ensure transparency of the Air Force force structure process,” says Col. Nahaku McFadden.
SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) had predicted the defense policy bill would be on the Senate floor for debate just after the Thanksgiving recess. But the Senate wrapped up its business Nov. 15 without an agreement to debate it.