Pentagon Faces Budget Cuts

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Defense Secretary Gates said weeks ago that the $78 billion in cuts proposed were as much as the Pentagon budget could absorb. So now, with President Obama calling for $400 billion more, there's a lot of talk in the military and on Capitol Hill about where these cuts could come from.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

One proposal to cut spending comes from President Obama. He wants to tighten the Pentagon operating budget by as much as $400 billion over the next 12 years.

As NPR's Tom Bowman explains, the president's own defense secretary, Robert Gates, is one of the people that's very worried about those cuts.

TOM BOWMAN: It's not that Secretary Gates doesn't think the defense budget should be trimmed - he's already proposed $78 billion in reductions over the next five years - but he waived off what he called deeper cuts.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We shrink from our global security responsibilities at our own peril.

BOWMAN: That's Gates testifying before a congressional committee last month, grandly talking about the dangers of more Pentagon cuts.

Sec. GATES: Retrenchment brought about by short-sighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later, indeed as they always have in the past.

BOWMAN: What Gates didn't know was that those deeper cuts he worried about would come from his boss, President Obama. Here's the president last week unveiling his deficit reduction package.

President BARACK OBAMA: So just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense, and we can do that while still keeping ourselves safe.

BOWMAN: But Gates isn't sure we can do that. He released a statement saying that Pentagon savings must be achieved through a review of strategy and policy. It can't be, Gates said, just a math exercise.

Republican leaders said the president's Pentagon cuts sounded like math to them.

Representative BUCK McKEON (Republican, California; Chairman, House Armed Services Committee): And to pick a $400 billion number out of the hat to say that we're going to cut, I mean, where did it come from?

BOWMAN: Congressman Buck McKeon of California heads the Armed Services Committee.

Rep. McKEON: Maybe we should ask the military what their roles are and missions.

BOWMAN: The president already has asked the military to set up a review panel to look into their operations and see where the cuts can be made. And some defense analysts say the 400 billion in Pentagon cuts could be easier than Gates and the Republicans think. That's because under President Obama's latest proposal, the defense budget will not increase as he originally planned. It's now frozen, says Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Mr. TODD HARRISON (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): What it means is you could essentially freeze the defense budget, not let it grow, except, you know, as inflation grows, and that would do a lot of the cutting for you.

BOWMAN: But Harrison says there's a problem with that scenario. Military pay and benefits are growing faster than inflation, so too are military operations. The Pentagon has already spent more than $600 million on Libya alone, so military pay and military operations are serving to crowd out other parts of the budget.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): That crowding-out effect means that other things are going to have to lose: buying more weapons, buying new weapons and developing new technologies.

BOWMAN: Michael O'Hanlon with the Brookings Institution agrees. The Pentagon cuts won't come as easily as some think.

Mr. O'HANLON: Nobody should confuse this with an efficiency exercise. This is going to be about cutting muscle and accepting greater risk and reducing capabilities.

BOWMAN: Where is the muscle?

Mr. O'HANLON: I think, for example, that you will have to eliminate some brigade combat teams in the Army, and you may have to look for ways to operate with one fewer aircraft carrier. You may need to buy substantially fewer numbers of certain weapons like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

BOWMAN: But O'Hanlon says that reducing the number of Army brigades can't happen for at least several more years when the U.S. is expected to turn over responsibility to Afghan forces.

And defense analyst Todd Harrison says the Pentagon can't find immediate savings for the Joint Strike Fighter, known as JSF, because it's still in development and already costing tens of billions of dollars. Harrison says the Pentagon will have to wait many years for savings.

Mr. HARRISON: Cutting back on the total buy of JSFs, that will save you money in the 2020s.

BOWMAN: In the 2020s. Wherever those cuts are made in the coming years, Gates won't be around to oversee them. He's expected to step down this summer.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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