Military Branches Try To Deflect Budget Cuts

A Congressional panel has roughly three months to come up with a plan to cut the deficit. The Pentagon is likely to get hit with hundreds of billions of dollars in additional budget cuts. Each branch of the military knows the cuts are coming — so they are trying publicly, and privately, to minimize the damage to their bottom lines.

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Members of Congress's supercommittee are examining past plans for deficit reduction as they begin the work of finding another trillion dollars in savings. The panel says a website is the works to allow the American public to weigh in. The committee has just three months to come up with a plan for further cuts. It's likely to call for hundreds of billions of dollars from the defense budget. Each branch of the military knows cuts are coming, so as NPR's Rachel Martin reports, they're gearing up to protect their turf.

RACHEL MARTIN: The battle of the defense budget is on, and it comes with a soundtrack.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This was the scene last week at a defense industry convention in Washington, D.C. all about unmanned aerial vehicles - drones. More than 400 companies set up kiosks in the huge hall, showing off the latest in unmanned remote technology.

The epic music blasted while two massive screens projected images of unmanned vehicles, interspersed with images of the American flag. The message was everywhere - from the demos and videos to the group of Boy Scouts trying out a drone simulator.

Unidentified Man: Your plane crashed. You died.

Unidentified Boy #1: Yes, I know.

Unidentified Man: You are so dead right now.

Unidentified Boy #1: Dude, knock it off.

Unidentified Boy #2: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #3: I'm pulling up, I'm pulling up. Oh, no. That's down.

MARTIN: This is the technology of the future, and you can't put a price on America's future security. So as the Pentagon weighs cuts up to a trillion dollars, each branch of the military is saying we are crucial to that future, which is pitting them against each other.

Mr. TODD HARRISON (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): There's a lot of inter-service rivalries that go on within the Pentagon.

MARTIN: That's Todd Harrison. He's a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Mr. HARRISON: A lot of people pointing fingers and saying, hey, you know, don't cut me, you should cut that other guy instead.

MARTIN: Harrison says most of that finger pointing will happen behind closed doors at the Pentagon, but the public argument each service delivers will be more subtle.

Mr. HARRISON: Publicly it'll come out with the services will be making an affirmative case for why their service and the unique capabilities they provide will be needed in the future.

MARTIN: For the Army and Marines, that means protecting the size of their ground forces. For the Air Force, it's the future stealth strike fighter. For the Navy, it's the number of aircraft carriers in the fleet.

Here's head of Navy operations Admiral Gary Roughead making his case at that defense conference last week.

Admiral GARY ROUGHEAD (United States Navy): We are present in every ocean of the world. We are standing by in those areas where conflict or disorder is likely to occur, and it's that presence that gives the nation the speed that will become increasingly important.

MARTIN: Other military leaders are making their case too. Last month, then-head of Special Operations Forces Admiral Eric Olson told an audience that even though his budget has tripled in the past decade, to $10 billion, his forces deliver the most bang for the buck.

Admiral ERIC OLSON (United States Navy, Retired): It's 1.6 percent of the Department of Defense's budget. The services invest another 1.6 percent in us, so the nation's buying its special operations force for about 3.5 percent of its budget, and we frankly think we're a pretty good deal.

Mr. DOV ZAHKEIM (Former Pentagon Comptroller): Naturally they're all scrambling.

MARTIN: Dov Zahkeim used to be the Pentagon comptroller - the man in charge of the budget. He says even if the congressional committee comes up with a deal, the Pentagon will still probably get hit with an additional $200 billion in reductions - on top of the 350 billion it was already asked to cut.

Mr. ZAHKEIM: The difficulty, of course, is that each of the services feels very vulnerable for different reasons and therefore is making a case why it should not be - let's put it this way - it should be spared more than the others without actually attacking the others.

MARTIN: Zahkeim says some services may get hit harder than others, but all of them have to plan for up to a 10 percent cut in their budget. If they figure out how to make those cuts, Zahkeim says they just might be asked to make them.

Mr. ZAHKEIM: There is this great fear that once they offer up these cuts, the argument will be made, well, these are cuts that should've been made anyway and therefore we're going to take them.

MARTIN: So the push is on as each corner of the Pentagon jockeys for position in the budget battle, fighting among themselves.

Unidentified Boy #4: (Unintelligible) my turn.

Unidentified Boy #5: Nuh-uh, my turn.

MARTIN: But also, they say, fighting for America.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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