After spending more than $2 trillion on the Wall Street debacle, economic stimulus and universal health care, our federal government is appropriately looking for ways to save money and cut spending.
But federal bureaucrats and elected officials ought to be careful they don't take one step forward and two steps back, wasting taxpayer money and causing tens of thousands of Americans to lose their jobs by needlessly cutting critical programs.
For instance, the Pentagon may waste taxpayers millions of dollars by cutting the C-17 cargo plane program. Worse yet, cutting the program could force some 30,000 skilled U.S. manufacturing workers out of their jobs, including 15,200 in Missouri, according to statistics provided by Boeing Co. While it may seem counterintuitive that cutting a program would cost taxpayers more money, slashing the C-17 would be an expensive mistake.
With our troops fighting two wars on foreign soil, our military demands better airlift capacity. Some Department of Defense bureaucrats have argued that rather than buying the state-of-the-art C-17s, we could save money in the short term by refurbishing much older, less reliable C-5A aircraft or leasing cargo aircraft produced by a former Soviet company.
The reality is that refurbished C-5As and leased Russian cargo jets will meet neither our budgetary nor military needs.
Modern C-17 aircraft can carry almost as much cargo as the older, larger C-5As but are much more agile. A C-17 can land at small bases on dirt runways, back up on its own power, offload cargo and take off minutes later for the next mission, which might be as a flying hospital caring for our wounded troops. The C-17 delivers more cargo directly to the front lines and saves lives. By contrast, the clunky C-5A is hamstrung by its own jumbo size, unable to land on most austere military landing fields in combat zones where cargo is most needed.
Worse yet, fixing up old C-5As will waste billions in taxpayer dollars without delivering more capability. The nonpartisan, highly respected Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that refurbishing just seven of the oldest C-5As could cost taxpayers a whopping $924 million, compared with buying three brand new C-17s that we can use for years to come for $828 million. Instead of spending almost $13 billion to retool ancient C5As, budget cutters could save $5 billion by buying 30 brand new C-17s, giving a big boost to our cargo capabilities.
Leasing former Soviet cargo aircraft could be even more of a boondoggle. According to the U.S. Transportation Command, taxpayers had to pay $950 million leasing such aircraft from 2004 to 2008 because of the shortfall in C-17 and other cargo aircraft. If we continue to increase our reliance on leased Russian cargo aircraft at the current rate, we will soon be spending more than several billion dollars each year on rented foreign jets.
Building more C-17s will not only save money; it will save jobs. The C-17 production line supports high-skill jobs for 30,000 Americans, including 15,200 right here in Missouri alone. That's 30,000 Americans who are paying taxes, spending at retail outlets and bolstering the economy rather than seeking unemployment benefits. That's 30,000 jobs in the critical industrial base that supports the U.S. military with state-of-the-art equipment. We need these jobs now more than ever.
The lessons of recent financial disasters — from Enron to the Wall Street implosion — is that smoke-and-mirrors accounting can show short-term savings while creating long-term hidden costs. Cutting the C-17 program would not only be a fiscal disaster; it would cost tens of thousands of Americans their jobs and endanger the security of our troops.
Jack Otero served as deputy undersecretary of labor for international affairs in the Clinton administration and is a former vice president of the AFL-CIO.