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The deficit deal just signed into law scaled back projected U.S. military spending, and more cuts could be coming.

NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin has been looking into exactly how much the Pentagon will have to cut and when.

RACHEL MARTIN: The short answer is that no one really knows.

Mr. DAVID BERTEAU (Center for Strategic and International Studies): We are in uncharted territory here.

MARTIN: That's David Berteau. He's an expert on budget issues with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I called him to try to figure out what this deficit deal means for the Pentagon, which he says hasn't had this much uncertainty about its budget since the end of the Cold War.

Mr. BERTEAU: Because we just don't know what the future looks like. What's the bottom? Where are we headed for, here?

MARTIN: Defense officials seemed just as confused about what the debt deal means for the future of the U.S. military. Here's Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan.

Colonel DAVE LAPAN (Spokesman, Pentagon): I don't think that we fully know yet. We're still looking through this to determine those impacts.

MARTIN: The debt package essentially calls for two phases of defense cuts. In the first phase, the Pentagon and other agencies - including the State Department, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security - will be forced to collectively cut hundreds of billions of dollars from their budgets over the next 10 years. Senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill and defense officials were still unclear yesterday about just how deep those initial cuts would be.

Carl Levin is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee): I think we can handle them, although they are fairly deep cuts. We don't know the precise number, but they're going to be pretty tough. But I think we can do it.

MARTIN: The Pentagon had already planned on cutting roughly $400 billion over the next 12 years. That's what President Obama asked for this spring. And the initial cuts in this deficit plan are expected to be around that number. So, for the Pentagon at least, these initial cuts are kind of a wash. But it's the looming possibility of a second phase of cuts that raises big concerns.

Under the deal, a bipartisan commission will be appointed to come up with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts by the end of November. That could include more defense cuts, or not. But if the commission can't reach a compromise, that first round of defense cuts could double - approaching $800 billion.

Senator John McCain asked General Martin Dempsey about this at the general's confirmation hearing last week to be the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): What would an $800 to trillion-dollar cut in defense spending over the next 10 years do to our readiness, general?

General MARTIN DEMPSEY (Confirmed Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): Senator, I haven't been asked to look at that number, but I have looked, and we are looking at 400, and I will react in this way: Based on the difficulty in achieving the $400 billion cut, I believe 800 would be extraordinarily difficult and very high risk.

MARTIN: Cuts that large would force the Pentagon to start making some tough choices. The size of the Army and Marine Corps was already expected to decrease in the next couple of years, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw down. Now, those forces may have to be cut back even more.

Mr. DOV ZAKHEIM (Former Pentagon Chief Financial Officer): The only thing that's harder than cutting the force itself is cutting their benefits and cutting retirement.

MARTIN: Dov Zakheim was the Pentagon's chief financial officer from 2001 to 2004.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: The biggest single part of the defense budget is being spent on personnel. The health spending, which is currently at about $52 billion, the Tricare programs are going to go...

MARTIN: Fifty-two billion dollars a year?

Mr. ZAKHEIM: Yes, ma'am. And that's going to go well over 60 billion. You have that. You have a retirement plan that basically starts paying people, if they've served 20 years, as low as the age of 38.

MARTIN: Outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen was asked about the pending defense cuts when he visited U.S. troops in Baghdad on Tuesday. Mullen said he's not sure where the cuts will come from, but they are coming, and he said at this point, everything's on the table.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You heard Rachel say that if a bipartisan committee cannot agree on deficit reductions, automatic defense cuts kick in. In an interview, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that committee will not agree unless Republicans accept higher taxes.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): They have to understand today that we will have no legislation that will come out of that joint committee unless revenues are part of the mix. It's a fact of life. And if they don't like that, then they can look forward to the huge cuts that will take place in sequestration, dealing with defense and some of their other programs that will be cut, including mandatory programs, farm programs and things of that nature.

INSKEEP: Reid is the Senate's Democratic leader, and he spoke with our colleague Michele Norris on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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