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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Congress yesterday not to cut the Pentagon budget beyond the 10 percent that President Obama has requested. The president has instructed the military to restrain increases in spending over the next decade, saving more than $450 billion. Panetta says making deeper cuts than that would put national security at risk. He says the cuts already planned are the limit.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: It's going to take us to the edge. And if suddenly, on top of that, we face additional cuts or if the sequester goes into effect and it doubles the number of cuts, then it will truly devastate our national defense.
INSKEEP: When Panetta referred to the sequester, this is what he meant: If a congressional committee fails to meet its goals for deficit reduction late this year, automatic cuts are supposed to kick in in the years that follow, including big defense cuts.
This is the first time since 2001 that the Defense Department has had to fight for funding. Besides lobbying Congress, Pentagon officials are going to the public for support, and NPR's Ted Robbins was invited on an Air Force exercise in Arizona.
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TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Five Air Force Pave Hawk helicopters are parked or landing in the high desert east of Tucson. They're transporting pretend earthquake victims. This is a training exercise. It's called Operation Angel Thunder.
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BRETT HARTNETT: We're always known for kind of staying really quiet and not really saying much.
ROBBINS: This year especially, Brett Hartnett realized that's not such a great strategy. That's why he pushed for public exposure through the media.
HARTNETT: I think there's concern everywhere that money might disappear, and we're as concerned as everybody else.
ROBBINS: Hartnett started Operation Angel Thunder five years ago, training Air Force rescue crews to save lives. Since then, the program has grown to include military and civilians from 16 countries.
HARTNETT: We're the same guys that do the Katrinas, the Ritas. The people pulling off of Mount McKinley are the same guys who are doing the combat rescues in Iraq and Afghanistan.
ROBBINS: The two-week exercise cost less than two-and-a-half million dollars, a pittance to the military. Todd Harrison says programs like Angel Thunder are probably safe.
TODD HARRISON: You could cut them. You could even eliminate them, but it doesn't free up enough money to really be worth your time as a budget cutter.
ROBBINS: Harrison analyzes the Defense Department for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan Washington think tank. He says when you need to cut money, you go where the money is.
HARRISON: The largest program right now in DOD is the Joint Strike Fighter. So just by the fact of its size, it's going to come under increased scrutiny.
ROBBINS: It's also behind schedule and over budget. So far, the aircraft cost taxpayers $235 billion. Some estimates say it could eventually cost up to a trillion dollars.
Weapons systems, though, can actually be easier to cut than other programs. By Todd Harrison's count, the military cancelled 12 major weapons systems over the last decade - $50 billion spent, with none of them deployed. Harrison says the current consensus is that the U.S. needs to cut troop levels.
HARRISON: I can tell you that a lot of people now feel that we may be relatively overinvested in our ground forces.
ROBBINS: Ending two wars would allow a troop draw-down. But those are tough cuts: jobs. Half of all federal employees work under the Defense budget, and local economies depend on existing defense programs. So to keep funding, those programs need to maintain support - inside the Pentagon itself, among members of Congress, and finally - assuming your project's not top secret - you get the word out to the public. Back to Brett Hartnett and Angel Thunder.
HARTNETT: People just don't realize what this really is until they see it. Once you see what this is, people are pretty amazed.
ROBBINS: The one thing which could hurt Operation Angel Thunder, regardless of its size? If Congress decides that it's too hard to pick individual programs to cut and orders an across-the-board reduction instead.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.