Economy

Pentagon Gears Up For Budget Cut War

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is making the case against sweeping cuts that could reduce the Pentagon's budget by up to $1 trillion. The Pentagon has already been ordered to cut $400 billion over the next 10 years. If additional cuts are ordered, some analysts say it will force the U.S. to make tough choices about its role as the sole military superpower.

DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

ust three months, that is how long the congressionally appointed supercommittee has to come up with a plan to further reduce the deficit. If they don't strike a deal, the Pentagon will be hit with cuts close to a trillion dollars. All of this puts the military in a difficult spot. The Pentagon says more defense cuts are unacceptable. But if lawmakers are unable to reach a compromise, the military may have little choice.

NPR's Rachel Martin has more.

RACHEL MARTIN: First, a brief reminder of how we got here. The deficit deal agreed to earlier this month already forced the Pentagon to reduce its budget by $350 billion over the next 10 years. The Pentagon says that will be tough, but they can handle with it. What they say they cannot handle is the possibility of $500 billion in more cuts. Those reductions would be triggered automatically if the congressional committee fails to do its job.

Here's what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday about that scenario, during an appearance on CNN.

Secretary LEON PANETTA (Department of Defense): If they go beyond that - this kind of massive cut across the board, which would literally double the number of cuts that we're confronting - that would have devastating effects. Very simply, it would result in hollowing out the force.

MARTIN: Notice that phrase: Hollowing out the force.

KORI SCHAKE (International Security Studies, West Point, Professor): It's not neutral. It is something that is pejorative and intended to frighten listeners.

MARTIN: Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at West Point. She says hollowing out the force was how the military described the deep defense cuts in the 1970s, after the Vietnam War.

SCHAKE: When the military was making a number of very important transitions to a volunteer force. And doing so at a time of great turmoil and very low spending, relative to what had been expected. And so you had cuts in capabilities and that's where the term hollow force comes from.

MARTIN: Now Secretary Panetta is reviving the old phrase. Panetta was brought in by President Obama to try to streamline the Pentagon budget, which has more than doubled since 9/11. But now the new secretary of Defense is drawing the line on how deep those cuts should go.

Sec. PANETTA: It would terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world.

MARTIN: Given all America's commitments around the world - Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya - not everyone thinks scaling back is such a bad thing.

ANDREW BACEVICH (International Relations, Boston University, Professor): The country is no longer in a position where it can economically afford to function, in effect, as a global policeman.

MARTIN: Andrew Bacevich is a retired Army colonel and professor of International Relations at Boston University. Bacevich argues that the budget cuts will force the U.S. government to do some long-needed soul searching about the limits of American military power. Which missions are worth the cost and which are not? Delivering humanitarian relief to Haiti? Helping NATO attack the leader of Libya? What about being able to wage two full-scale ground wars at the same time?

Kori Schake agrees that the budget cuts have to be about more than which weapons systems to cut and which to keep.

SCHAKE: You can't just say, well, the F22 will have to go. You have to say what kinds of wars will we not fight, if we do this.

MARTIN: Schake, who worked as a campaign advisor for Senator John McCain in 2008, says America needs to keep its military presence around the world strong. If it doesn't, how other countries perceive American power could start to change.

SCHAKE: At what point will other countries begin to believe that they can challenge America with impunity? Or the cuts that we are making will impose greater risks on allies that are already in tenuous circumstances, and those allies then make choices that we have a hard time living with.

MARTIN: Secretary Panetta says he can't live with any more cuts to the defense budget beyond $400 billion. But come Thanksgiving, if the Super Committee fails to come up with a compromise deal, he may not have a choice.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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