Defense analyst Todd Harrison posed a fascinating question while we discussed the battle over the Air National Guard's budget: When has a military service had to negotiate their budget request with a group of state officials?
The Council of Governors has grabbed the attention of the Pentagon. Formed in 2010 to improve the response to natural disasters, the ten governors who sit on the council have reached out to the rest of the state governors and gained a consensus among 48 of the 50. Each signed letters to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Armed Services Committees in their fight against the Air Force's decision to place the brunt of the cuts to the service's budget on the backs of the Air National Guard.
The National Guard has always had one of the strongest lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. It has a national reach and "in the end, all politics is local,"said Greg Kiley, a defense analyst who served six years as a senior professional staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee. But neither he nor Harrison could think of a time when they played such a prominent role in the debate over a service's budget.
Panetta tried to offer an olive branch by proposing to cut fewer guardsmen and transfer 24 of the older C-130s from active duty to the Guard. The governors didn't bite and rejected the compromise. Instead, the council requested the funding for the Guard remain at 2012 levels.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz pushed back himself on Tuesday saying if Congress wants to give back more force structure, it better break out its checkbook. Otherwise, Congress will hollow out the Air Force.
"If you give us force structure back, give us the money too because the quickest way I know to a hollow force is if you give us force structure and no money," Schwartz said Tuesday. "To just indicate that [the Air Force] keep it and make it work is not a satisfactory solution in my mind."
In the end, Congress decides what gets funded and Schwartz can see the writing on the wall. The Air Force will have to find other targets to stomach the coming budget cuts because the Guard has too much support on Capitol Hill.
U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, reached out to the Council of Governors and enlisted their help in his battle against sequestration. McKeon wrote to the council saying he was "concerned that a satisfactory resolution with Secretary Panetta has not yet occurred."
"You have my commitment to make sure your concerns are considered during Congress' legislative efforts this year," McKeon wrote.
It looks as if the Air Force will have to take its medicine. What appears to be the Air Force's loss will serve as a major warning sign to Army leaders when it comes to slicing their Guard's budget.
Hands off unless you have all your ducks in a row, or be prepared to rake your leadership over the coals.