Pentagon Announces Billions In Defense Cuts

In the midst of calls to cut the deficit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a Pentagon budget that is 3 percent higher than the current year, a spending plan he predicted would spur a lot of debate on Capitol Hill. Gates also outlined $78 billion in Pentagon cuts that won't start until the next few years, and include reducing the size of the Army and the Marines.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates did something of the impossible today: He announced cuts to the defense budget, and at the same time, though, he unveiled a plan to grow military spending. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been crunching the numbers and has this explanation for the Pentagon's accounting magic.

TOM BOWMAN: Secretary Gates called his budget the minimum level of defense spending that's necessary, given what he called the many security challenges around the world. But he made pains to say that not every program can be spared cutbacks.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We must come to realize that not every defense program is necessary, not every defense dollar is sacred and well-spent and that more of nearly everything is simply not sustainable.

BOWMAN: What's not sustainable? The Marine Corps' troubled and expensive amphibious troop carrier - Gates cut that. He's also delaying a Marine version of a warplane called the Joint Strike Fighter.

But here's the catch: The Marines, like the other military services, will be able to plow a lot of those savings into other programs. The Marines will upgrade their current amphibious vehicle.

Gates found $100 billion in Pentagon savings over five years but allowed the Pentagon to keep that money. Kori Schake served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and sees Gates as something of a magician.

Ms. KORI SCHAKE (Former Bush Administration Official): My sense is that he's actually pulled off one of the great Houdini acts of our time because everybody's talking about this $100 billion-cut in the budget. What Gates has actually done is moved $100 billion from his existing budget to his existing budget.

BOWMAN: Retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming wanted Gates to make real cuts. Simpson was part of a presidential commission that proposed 100 billion cuts in one year alone and would use it to cut the deficit, not let the Pentagon pocket its savings.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Wyoming): He's a wonderful guy, and I've known him a long time, and to just reprogram and move stuff around inside as a saving, it just - it won't get us anywhere.

BOWMAN: Meaning it won't help cut the country's massive debt. That's been the focus of the tea party movement and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Gates says he's ready for that discussion.

Sec. GATES: My view is that we've got it about right, and there clearly will be a lot of debate on the Hill about this.

BOWMAN: The incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says Republicans plan on looking to the Pentagon for possible cuts.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): The Republican majority, as you would expect, is going to be a majority focused on national security, as far as defense is concerned. But everybody is going to have to do more with less.

BOWMAN: Gates has heard the call for more cuts. So today Gates proposed to trim $78 billion over five years beginning in 2013. These cuts, if they ever happen, would not just be shifted to other defense programs.

How would Gates hit that target? A lot of that comes from what he calls overhead reductions in efficiencies. That includes everything from cutting the number of admirals and generals to civilian salary freezes, also cutting the Army and Marine Corps by as many as 50,000 troops. That makes sense to Carl Conetta, a defense analyst at the Project on Defense Alternatives. Troop cuts are something he and others have called for.

Mr. CARL CONETTA (Analyst, Project on Defense Alternatives): Some key ideas were rolling back the size of the Army and the Marine Corps as the wars wind down.

BOWMAN: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates says don't look for those troop cuts until the end of 2014.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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