DAVENPORT, Iowa — A petite woman with a cropped haircut stood in front of a handful of local reporters and television cameras, dwarfed by the howitzer behind her. On opening day of the Iowa State Fair, far from the media swarming the presidential candidates, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, paid a visit to Rock Island Arsenal.
As Iowa takes center stage in the 2016 race, the Army arsenal has stayed largely outside the spotlight. On an island in the Mississippi River, the border between Iowa and Illinois running through it, Rock Island is the largest government-owned and operated weapons manufacturing arsenal in the country, and, the Army’s only active foundry, operating since the 1880s. While Donald Trump and the other candidates debated the Iraq War and big government at the fair, here, the debate over federal spending and the budget caps due to return at the start of fiscal 2016 on Oct. 1 prevents managers from planning for even the immediate future.
Lawmakers have only 10 workdays to come up with a spending solution before the government shuts down. Republican leaders are planning for a short-term, stop-gap funding bill known as a continuing resolution. Rock Island’s managers, however, don’t know what to expect.
The arsenal so far has been spared the 40,000-troop cuts over the next two years recently announced by the Army — and much maligned by the Republican presidential candidates. But it has been crippled by the dysfunction in Washington that has resulted in continuing resolutions, or CRs, for the last several years. While the CR’s keep spending to the previous year’s levels, avoiding a government shutdown and disruption to military pay and benefits, they deprive military facilities of continuity. Washington’s paralysis matters a lot to an arsenal that manufactures and assembles some 300 military products, including springs and sights, gun mounts, recoil mechanisms, artillery carriages, Humvee shelter boxes, and long-range artillery howitzers. They even make the spikes on the White House fence.
“For the most part, we don’t even know what new work we’re going to be doing in fiscal year ’16,” said Greg Lupton, a civilian plant manager at the arsenal. He is trying to plan projects three to four years in the future, but they depend on Congress. “That is our No. 1 challenge: not knowing what we’re going to be building next year.”
The presidential candidates, amid their hand-wringing and frank inaccuracies about military spending, are largely avoiding placing the blame on Congress — when they’re not avoiding the subject altogether. But Ernst fielded half a dozen questions on the funding fight and its impact on facilities like the arsenal.
“That’s where Rock Island Arsenal comes into play,” Ernst said during her visit. “They make sure that the items they’re pushing out are protecting and serving our soldiers, our airmen, our Marines, as they’re out protecting our national security interests. So we have to watch this as we move forward and make sure as it involves sequestration that we are not downsizing our capabilities.”
Ernst said Congress should avoid those automatic, across-the-board cuts but acknowledged the unlikelihood. “It is absolutely necessary that we come to some sort of agreement, but what that final agreement will look like, I can’t say,” she said.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who sits on both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, told Defense One last week, “I think as we get closer to Sept. 30, it looks like we’re gonna need a CR.”
“The military services need to know four years from now, five years from now, as much as you can, what’ll be there — and to go just year to year, as every commander has told us…we can’t operate that way,” Reed said.
“It’s always a concern,” said Arsenal spokesman Rhys Fullerlove. “We don’t know what sequestration’s going to be — we just know it’s this ominous thing out there.”
Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates alike promise to “rebuild the military” while neglecting to say how they’ll do it. The GOP field in particular has slammed President Barack Obama for “decimating the military.” But Obama administration officials consistently have asked for more money for the Defense Department than former President George W. Bush did at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military leaders have asked Congress to help curb their costs as those wars drawdown. Yet candidates hailing from Congress — such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have voted against deals seeking a solution to the caps.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who argues he fought waste in defense spending for decades as a congressman, may be the only candidate to suggest that closing excess military installations — the process called base realignment and closure, or BRAC — is a good thing. “It’s always an issue of parochialism,” he said, “I actually think the concern about base closings, or BRAC, makes everybody more efficient, keeps everybody on their toes.”
But most leaders from members of Congress to presidential candidates gloss over how their budget inaction hurts facilities back home. Washington’s budget stalemate affects 7,500 employees at Rock Island Arsenal, which contributes more than $1 billion annually to the local economy and supports more than 50,000 active, reserve and retired military and civilian employees for 150 miles around. Army Secretary John McHugh designated its Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center as a center of excellence.
Lupton, the plant manager, pointed out bins for the Defense Logistics Agency that would provide spare parts for troops in theater, and large medieval-looking spikes – security for the White House fence. “Now we’re getting inquiries for the vice president’s home,” he said. “We don’t limit ourselves just to the Army — it’s all over DOD, it’s also non-defense.”
“The smaller the budget, the less stuff gets built. Simple as that,” Lupton said. “It’s concerning – the less soldiers, like they keep talking about, the less equipment they need which means the less they procure, which also means more has to be sustained, which also cuts back on as many new projects.
“So in the down years when you’re not in a major conflict — not to say that we’ve pulled out, but we’re not at the peak of the war like we were — it’s difficult to predict what a defense organization is going to need.”
Ernst said, “We have to find efficiencies in every department regardless of what that department is. If we start doing that, we can bolster what we’re spending on national defense and find savings in other areas.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter continues to warn the GOP’s budget mechanism is a “road to nowhere.”
“Indiscriminate cuts from sequestration — not to mention a continuing resolution — are wasteful for taxpayers, dangerous for our strategy, unfair for our people, and frankly, embarrassing in front of the world,” Carter said last week, in his latest attack. “We need to come together behind a multi-year approach to our budgeting, and we must start immediately.”
Carter has also described the year-to-year funding as problematic for readiness, which Rock Island is supposed to ensure. “We’re here to solve readiness issues for the U.S. military,” Fullerlove said.
“That’s the capability we bring — we are the nation’s national security insurance policy,” he said proudly. “That’s how I answer the phone now, ‘National security insurance policy, how can I help you?’”