Defense Cuts Could Get Twice As Bad

The Pentagon must cut military spending by $500 billion over the next 10 years. That figure may double to $1 trillion, since the penalty imposed by last fall's congressional supercommittee was for even deeper cuts starting in 2013. Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, a closer look at a big part of that budget - military spending. The Pentagon must cut a half-trillion dollars over the next 10 years, and it might even have to cut twice that. We're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman to talk more about this. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, how much does the Pentagon have to cut, Tom? Is it $500 billion or a full trillion with a T?

BOWMAN: Well, right now it's $500 billion. And the Pentagon is saying it's hard but manageable. The way they're going to get there is by, first of all, cutting the size of the ground forces. They're going to reduce the Army and the Marine Corps by roughly 100,000 troops and also they're going to cut some aircraft, cut some ships. But the catch here is they may also have to cut more, another half-trillion dollars over 10 years.

MARTIN: So, that's because the so-called congressional supercommittee failed to reach an agreement last Thanksgiving. And the penalty for failing was these deep spending cuts starting in 2013. That's right?

BOWMAN: That's right. And unless Congress somehow sidelines this and prevents the Pentagon from getting cut further, this could go into effect. And there's a lot of concern on Capitol Hill about this. But President Obama has said that he won't let Congress off the hook that easily. Here he is last fall.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My message to them is simple: no. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one.

BOWMAN: So, there's a real possibility that there could be further cuts in the Pentagon spending, another half-trillion dollars if they can't work this out.

MARTIN: Well, a few weeks ago I sat down with the U.S. secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, and we talked about the budget. And I asked him if he's preparing for these deeper cuts. And he said, no, not at all. Wondering, Tom, has anything changed? Any sign that the Pentagon is making plans, is preparing to cut more?

BOWMAN: We're not hearing any planning going on at the Pentagon about further cuts in their budget. I've been told that Secretary Panetta has said privately, why should I plan for it? These are supposed to be across-the-board cuts, equal cuts in all the programs. But one person I talked with on Capitol Hill said if they come forward with those cuts, Congress may say, OK, we're going to cut those anyway.

MARTIN: So, if they identify the cuts, the likelihood that they're actually going to happen is greater.

BOWMAN: That's right.

MARTIN: I'd like to shift gears a little bit, Tom, and ask you about an announcement that the Pentagon made last week. This is related to women in combat. And the Pentagon is making a change. The military is now going to allow women to serve in jobs - mostly in the Army and Marine Corps - that bring them closer to the front lines, closer to combat. How significant a change is this?

BOWMAN: You know, it's really not all that significant. It's really an incremental change, if anything. And it formalizes what we've already seen, those of us who have covered Iraq and Afghanistan. What it calls for is women would be allowed to be in battalions closer to the action. And right now they're only allowed at brigade level, which is a larger unit, farther back, away from the action. And the jobs they'll be allowed to go into now range from medic to intelligence specialists, those kind of things. The Pentagon says it'll open up about 14,000 positions to women. But what it doesn't allow - and this is not a change - is that it would not let women in actual ground combat units - infantry, driving a tank, being a Green Beret, for example.

MARTIN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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