Defense world braces for budget cuts

The Pentagon, defense contractors and lawmakers are bracing for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement Thursday about $487 billion in cuts to his department’s spending.

The announcement scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday, which Panetta will make with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, will ignite a battle in both the halls of Congress and the presidential campaign trail about the size and strength of the U.S. military.

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Among the biggest changes that Panetta will announce is a reduction of 80,000 soldiers, a move that will lower the Army’s force level from a record high of 570,000 to 490,000 troops, U.S. officials confirmed to The Hill on Wednesday. That would amount to a reduction of eight brigades, an official said.

Panetta has also said that two of the four U.S. brigades in Europe would be withdrawn.

Some Republicans have warned that cutting too deeply at the Pentagon is dangerous, and they blasted the new military strategy President Obama announced earlier this month that called for a leaner force. Obama can expect the Republicans seeking to defeat him in next fall’s election to charge that the proposed cuts will weaken the United States.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who attended a meeting Wednesday with congressional leaders and Panetta about the new budget, said Republican concerns are overblown, as the new budget has the backing of the military’s leaders.

“Some people are making these allegations about these cuts being dangerous, and they’re going to have to deal with the testimony that will be there [from top military officials],” Levin said at a breakfast with reporters Thursday hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s a very solid budget, and I strongly support it.”

The Air Force Times reported Thursday that Panetta will call for two new rounds of base closures through the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), which Levin cited as a concern of his Thursday.

Some weapons programs, such as the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, are also likely to face the budget ax, and the F-35 fighter plane, the Pentagon’s largest weapons system, will see delays in production, analysts said.

The Obama administration’s budget request for 2013 is expected to include $524 billion for base Pentagon spending, a decrease of more than $45 billion from the 2013 budget projection that was provided last year.

The figure is also a $7 billion cut from the $531 billion 2012 base budget approved by Congress last month, which would be the first reduction in Pentagon spending since the 1990s.

That budget reduction, which was agreed to in last year’s debt-limit deal, does not take into account an additional $500 billion in sequestered defense cuts that will take effect in January 2013 if Congress does not come up with at least $1.2 trillion in cuts.

Obama outlined the new U.S. military strategy earlier this month during a trip to the Pentagon, with a shift toward the Asia-Pacific region and a reduction in the number of ground troops.

“I’ve proposed a new defense strategy that ensures we maintain the finest military in the world, while saving nearly half a trillion dollars in our budget,” Obama said Tuesday in his State of the Union address.

The president’s speech on the strategy revamp was light on details, however, and the full extent of cuts won’t be known until the administration’s budget is released Feb. 13.

Panetta’s announcement Thursday is designed both to highlight the biggest changes that are being made ahead of the budget release and to set the stage for the political fight to follow, defense analysts said.

Some areas in the military will be affected more than others by the cuts, as the shift to the Asia-Pacific region places a higher emphasis on the Navy and Air Force. Panetta said over the weekend on the USS Enterprise that the Navy will not reduce its force of 11 aircraft carriers, which had previously been viewed as a potential target for cuts.

“The bottom line here is that the next several years are likely to be a good time for sea power and long-range air power and a difficult time for ground forces,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute.

It’s still unclear whether some unresolved issues in the Pentagon budget, such as how the National Guard and Reserve forces are handled and whether there are changes to military benefits, will be tackled by Panetta on Thursday.

Once the administration produces the full budget, the budget debate will shift to Congress. House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told The Hill that the top-line numbers are essentially locked in, although he complained that Republicans continued to criticize the new strategy and the budget cuts surrounding it.

“Certain Republicans are screaming bloody murder about it, even as they voted for the budget that required these numbers,” Smith said.

He added that having the top-line set could actually ease the congressional budget debate — unless there is a strong pushback against some of the proposed cuts.

“If you save $20 billion here, and Congress says no … then the strategy starts to fray, because then you have to find that $20 billion somewhere else,” Smith said.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), an Armed Services Committee member, said Republicans have accepted the initial $487 billion reduction from the debt deal, but are anxious about the potential for more cuts through sequestration, which they say would decimate the military.

Conaway told The Hill that Republicans will likely oppose some of the ways the president proposes to trim the defense budget.

“I can’t imagine that many of us on our side of the aisle are going to agree with the president’s priorities, particularly if he was bragging on the clean-energy stuff he talked about [at the State of the Union address], if he’s going to require the services to invest in it,” he said.

Russell Rumbaugh, co-director of the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the Stimson Center, said Thursday’s budget preview is in some ways a political event meant to help the Pentagon get out in front of the issue.

“I’m expecting them to make a big deal about how this was really hard, and use a bunch of examples to show how much they’re going to cut,” Rumbaugh said.

“By rolling out this press conference, Panetta is arming himself and the services to have the defense budget go down the way they want it.”

— This story was posted at 8:54 p.m. Wednesday and was updated at 11:49 a.m. Thursday.