Pentagon Expected To Cut Half A Trillion In New Budget

The federal budget was released Monday. In it, the Pentagon is expected to cut $259 billion from what it had planned to spend over the next five years. NPR's Tom Bowman talks with Melissa Block about where the cuts will hit in 2013.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, a closer look at military spending. As we heard in Scott's report, the Pentagon has been directed to cut nearly half a trillion dollars from what it had planned to spend over the next 10 years.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman now walks us through some of the key features of the president's military budget.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, the big thing here is that in this budget you're starting to see a strategy shift toward the Pacific and Asia. And a lot of this has to do with keeping an eye on China's growing military might and its ability to operate farther into the Pacific. So, the budget says, for example, the U.S. will continue to maintain eleven aircraft carriers. They're developing better cruise missiles for subs, sensors and jamming equipment for ships and aircraft and also more money for new Air Force long-range bombers that can be piloted or remotely piloted.

And the other thing is they're working more closely with allies in the region now, in the Pacific area. Pentagon wants to base a ship at Singapore, for example, and, of course, the Pentagon is going to base nearly 3,000 Marines in the northern part of Australia. So, that's sort of part of the new strategy shift we're seeing.

BLOCK: And a lot of those, Tom, sound like areas where they'll actually be increasing spending.

BOWMAN: Right. There are two things to remember here. Overall, the budget is going down for the Pentagon, but there are some areas the Pentagon is spending more or not cutting as much, what it calls high priority programs - aircraft carriers, as I mentioned. And also, more money on some of the drone aircraft, mostly those that take pictures or surveillance video. There's a greater investment in cyber warfare, and that would include systems that attack an enemy's computers. And that's something, by the way, China is spending a lot more money on.

The Pentagon also calls special operations forces, Green Berets and Navy SEALs, a high priority, $10 billion for them next year, roughly the same amount of money as this year. But these are the kind of guys that would train Afghan forces. They're used for raids against the Taliban or terrorist groups, and they're also used in rescue missions. The SEALs, as you remember, were used to rescue those hostages, recently, in Somalia. So again, some areas the budget is flat, other areas are actually spending more.

BLOCK: But we talked about half a trillion dollars in cuts. Where are those cuts coming from?

BOWMAN: Well, some of the big cuts are coming in ground forces, the Army and Marine Corps will be cut by about 100,000 troops over the coming years. And since they don't have as many Marines, they're cutting the Marine transport aircraft called the Osprey and also the Air Force cargo planes will be cut by several dozen, because there'll be fewer soldiers to fly around.

And since you're moving more toward an Asia strategy, you'll be reducing Army troops in Europe. They're going to pull out a couple of brigades there, and that's about 10,000 troops.

BLOCK: And, Tom, troop reduction means big savings overall.

BOWMAN: Right. In any organization or business, everybody knows that the biggest costs are people. And what's particularly expensive is the health care costs for troops and their families. So, as a result, the military will eventually save money by cutting those forces. And the other thing is the health care cost. They want working age retirees - let's say an Air Force lieutenant colonel, he spent 20 years in the Air Force. He might be in his mid-40s. He's now working for a defense contractor.

He's still in that military health care system, but he's got a civilian job. So, the question is this guy is paying now about one-tenth of what other government employees or civilians would pay for a family health plan. They're looking at that retiree to pay more in co-pays and deductibles and fees. The enrollment fee for retiree for military healthcare is about $500 and that could increase four times for the higher-ranking officers in the next five years under this budget plan.

BLOCK: And briefly, Tom, what are the chances of those increases in medical fees that you're talking about actually becoming law?

BOWMAN: It's going to be a tough sell because veterans groups, retired officers association, they have a large number in their groups and also powerful allies on Capitol Hill. Congress has been reluctant to increase fees. And veterans groups say, hey, listen, many of us has been to war. We've moved our families every two or three years. We've endured separations. Don't compare us to civilians. It's going to be a tough sell.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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