Foster's: Ayotte renews call for compromise to stop defense cuts
By JIM HADDADIN
KITTERY, Maine - U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte warned Thursday in a conference call that defense cuts set to begin in January would be devastating for New Hampshire defense contractors and local military installations.
Defense spending will be cut between $550 billion and $600 billion during the course of the next 10 years, unless legislators reach compromise on a bill to avoid so-called "sequestration" cuts.
That would be on top of a $487 billion defense spending cut already programmed to take place over the next 10 years, under the budget passed by Congress last year.
The cuts are the result of the failure of a Congressional committee to slash $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit last year. The failure means steep cuts hard-wired into the budget are on target to hit the military in nine months. If the sequestration cuts go in effect, nearly all military programs will be subject to reductions, military officials say.
In a speech last year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta compared the force reductions, which would bring the country's military to its lowest staffing and vehicle levels in decades, would be akin to "shooting ourselves in the head."
"This mechanism would force defense cuts that would do catastrophic damage to our military and its ability to protect the country," he said. "It would double the number of cuts that we confront, and it would damage our interests not only here, but around the world. It would require a mindless approach of drastic cuts to both defense and domestic discretionary accounts."
Ayotte has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. John McCain that stops the first year of cuts through attrition to the federal work force and a temporary continuation of a pay freeze for federal employees. Under the plan, for every three federal employees that retire, the government could fill only two positions.
The bill, which has no Democratic co-sponsors, would reduce the work force by 5 percent.
"We're just asking them right now even if you don't like the specifics in this bill ¿ are you willing to sit down around the table and come up with other alternatives to reduce spending - to stop the sequestration."
If the sequestration cuts are passed, the U.S. Navy will be hit with a $15 billion annual cut. That's equal to the Navy's entire $15 billion ship-building budget, Ayotte said.
Although the Navy has said previously it needs 313 ships to meet its needs, the sequestration cuts would result in the naval fleet being reduced from 285 ships and submarines to 235 10 years from now, Ayotte said, citing testimony from Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, who appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15.
That reduction would come at a time when the importance of the country's Navy has escalated, Ayotte said, and it would also threaten the need for work at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which services submarines.
Pressed for details about how the sequestration cuts would affect the shipyard, Ayotte said the defense department hasn't provided that level of specificity, but she stressed cuts will have ramifications across the board, given the "meat ax approach" the sequestration cuts take to budgeting.
"The immediate impact is ... some really tough choices," Ayotte said. "Basically, the Navy is forced to, if they want to protect (from) other cuts, they've got to look at infrastructure and personnel, so when you think about it, they just have some incredibly tough choices."
The sequestration cuts could also have serious impacts for Pease Air National Guard Base, which is one of several bases around the country in contention to receive the U.S. Air Force's top-of-the-line air refueling tanker, the KC-46A.
Frank Kendall, acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said recently sequestration cuts could jeopardize the KC-46A tanker program. Ayotte said fewer KC-46A tankers would be built if the sequestration cuts are enacted, and the program could also be completely cut.
With an aging fleet of eight KC-135 Stratotankers now based at Pease, missing out on a new generation of aircraft could be a significant loss, Ayotte said.
Ayotte said the Congress can't wait until December to take action because local employers who perform work for the defense industry, such as BAE Systems, need certainty to launch new projects.
"It's only eight months till this happens," Ayotte said. "I think we should resolve it now because we don't want our employers taking actions that they shouldn't have to take now."
Members of Congress have a strong self-interest in reaching a compromise to avoid the sequestration cuts, which would slash funding to non-defense programs as well. However, Ayotte said she's seen no urgency to achieve that goal, and she urged legislators to take action soon.
"The more I learn about sequestration, the more concerned I become, and there is a real urgency for it," she said. "I do not believe that this can be left till the end of the year, with everything else that Congress has to decide."