Pentagon Faces Hard Choices

President Obama's budget for the Defense Department increases funding for next year, but the Pentagon has been putting off hard decisions for years. The military may have to cut some big-ticket programs and balance the demands of war today with the need to retool the armed forces for the future.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. In the budget President Obama unveiled this week, he included $500 billion for the Pentagon for next year. That's up from this year, and it doesn't include another $130 billion the President says is necessary to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even with more money, the Defense Department will still have to make big cuts. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is here now to explain why. Thanks for joining us.

TOM BOWMAN: It's good to be with you.

SMITH: So, we've learned the big-dollar amounts in the defense budget, but does that tell us much about how exactly the Pentagon's going to spend the money?

BOWMAN: We don't really know yet. We're not going to know until April. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said there'll be hard choices here. And what he wants to do in general is sort of balance between future conventional fights, - large wars with tanks and ships and airplanes - and also the current counter-insurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, which tend to need different kinds of weapons like drone aircraft.

And he's also looking at, he says, increasing the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. That's well underway, but we don't have any details yet about exactly where the money will go in the defense budget.

SMITH: But we do know that even though the budget went up, the Pentagon has to cut back programs. Why is that?

BOWMAN: Well, they're all competing for money now. There's some big-ticket items coming up for payments. There's a question about whether they should buy more F-22s, 20 or 40 or 60 more. And also, as I said, with increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, there are added health care costs for those soldiers and their families. So, in essence, they're all elbowing each other out for some of these defense dollars.

SMITH: Because Gates expected more money than he got.

BOWMAN: Exactly, right.

SMITH: Now, won't the Pentagon get savings from cutting back troops in Iraq? I mean, the President said yesterday he wants all the combat troops out by the summer of 2010 and all troops out by the end of 2011.

BOWMAN: Well, he will get some savings, but not quite yet. They're still looking at spending $130 billion through 2010 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it won't be until 2011 where they hope to cut that back to $50 billion for both wars.

So, it's really going to be, you know, a couple of years before they get real savings from the wars. The other thing, too, is with both troops and money, it's nice to say right now, you know what? Two years from now, we're only going to be spending $50 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's easy to say right now. We have no idea.

The commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President, secretary of defense, no one can tell you exactly how much will be spent because we don't know what those countries are going to look like then.

SMITH: So, as Pentagon planners look over the next two, three, four years, I mean, they're expecting a lot of tough decisions will have to be made about what's going to be cut.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, right. And nobody really knows yet if they're going to eliminate certain programs. The Army's trying to build this thing called a Future Combat System, which is a series of sort of tank-like vehicles with better communications equipment, computerized information all coming from satellites and drones and little robotic vehicles. The Navy's trying to build what's called Littoral Combat Ships. So, there are all these huge, expensive systems coming down the pike.

Some people think they may just trim around the edges, cut back on the numbers of some of these planes and armored vehicles and so forth, but others say there could be - you know, he could end certain programs. But at this point, nobody really knows for sure.

SMITH: NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks a lot.

BOWMAN: Good to be with you.

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