Debt Commission Has Defense Spending In Cross Hairs

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The push to cut the budget deficit has targeted nearly everything the government spends money on — including national defense. Pentagon boss Robert Gates had tried to head off efforts to cut the defense budget. He'd already introduced his own plan to spend defense dollars more efficiently. But Gates and the military are facing pressure to cut even more.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We begin this morning with the money and politics of defense. In a few minutes, the politics of the Senate debate over gays in the military. We will start with the money.

The two men heading up President Obama's commission to reduce the deficit are calling for big cuts in military spending - billions and billions from the military budget - to help pay off the nation's debt. Defense Secretary Robert Gates doesn't think the Pentagon has that much to give. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman with the story.

TOM BOWMAN: It's not that Secretary Gates doesn't want to cut spending - he's already told the military services to find $100 billion over five years. But here's the catch...

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): I've basically assured them that all the savings that they can find in their overhead within their service they can reinvest.

BOWMAN: Reinvest. That means the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines would keep the savings they find. That's not the way Erskine Bowles sees it. The former chief of staff to President Clinton has another idea for Gates's money.

Mr. ERSKINE BOWLES (Former White House Chief of Staff): We started by taking his $100 billion that he was going to get over five years and we used that -instead of to reinvest it - we used it to pay down the debt.

BOWMAN: His co-chair, Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, says they've been upfront with Secretary Gates.

Former Senator ALAN SIMPSON (Republican, Wyoming): And we've talked with him and he knows what's going on. He has to do these things.

BOWMAN: That may be overstating things. Gates says such cuts would be catastrophic, and he took a swipe at their work.

Mr. GATES: And I think in terms of the specifics they came up with, that's essentially math, not strategy.

BOWMAN: So let's look at the specifics.

Mr. LOREN THOMPSON (Defense Analyst, Lexington Institute): The two commission chairmen seem to have targeted Marine Corps programs more than any other service.

BOWMAN: That's Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute -and he's right. The debt commission chairmen want to cut three major Marine Corps programs: a fighter jet, a plane that takes off like a helicopter, and an amphibious troop carrier. That last one's called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. All three, says Bowles and Simpson, are too pricey and have technical problems. Cutting them would save about $5 billion.

That cut makes sense, says Larry Korb, a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration. He says the last time the Marines landed on a hostile shore was during the Korean War.

Mr. LARRY KORB (Former Pentagon Official): We haven't had an amphibious landing on the fire since Inchon. So I think, you know, that's a weapon system you could take a look at.

BOWMAN: Cutting any weapons programs, though, will mean a fight. These projects have their defenders. Former Marine General Bob Magnus says it makes no sense to cut that troop carrier now, just when the Marines are about to test it. Bowles and Simpson seem to be banking too much on weapons cuts. Again, Loren Thompson, the defense analyst.

Mr. THOMPSON: So far, people are finding it much easier to cut weapons than to cut military benefits or to cut the size of the force, and in the end that's going to leave us with an unbalanced military posture.

BOWMAN: Unbalanced because you may have too many people and not enough planes and tanks for them to ride in. Bowles and Simpson are not talking about cutting the size of the armed services - that's because so many troops are needed in Iraq and Afghanistan - but the co-chairmen are looking at cutting military pay and benefits.

For example, they want military retirees to pay more for their military-sponsored health care. Right now, the premiums retirees pay are far lower than most Americans pay, says Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Mr. TODD HARRISON (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): For a family plan, it's $460 a year. That premium has not changed one cent since 1995.

BOWMAN: And how does that compare to the average American?

Mr. HARRISON: Right now, the average private sector worker, their contribution to their health care premiums are about $4,000 a year.

BOWMAN: Higher premiums for military retirees would bring in about $6 billion. Retirees, though, have fought such cuts in Congress before, so it may be tough politically to get that money now.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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