With all eyes on deficit, hawks know Pentagon cuts are coming

Defense insiders on and off Capitol Hill increasingly acknowledge more cuts are ahead for the Pentagon as lawmakers and the administration intensify their efforts to reduce the nation’s deficit.

They say the political battle will focus on the size and nature of spending reductions and that major weapons programs could be spared from the cuts.

President Obama has set a marker of reducing defense spending by $400 billion through 2023.
This promises new cuts to his 2012 budget request, made just a few months ago, of $553 billion for the Pentagon.

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In proposing new reductions, Obama seems to be bowing to political reality, and defense appropriators already had dismissed his initial budget request.

“Oh, it will have to come down,” House Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) told The Hill last week.

He and other lawmakers say their starting point will be the 2011 measure approved by the House last week, which would provide $531 billion for the Pentagon, though Dicks, the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel’s Defense subcommittee, said it is too soon to know how far the administration’s request will come down.

“The 2011 budget agreement shows where the political system is at,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting during the Clinton administration and now is with the Stimson Center. “It is no longer focused on propping up defense budgets.”

Another symbol of the shifting political winds came Tuesday when a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) told The Hill the lawmaker had declined to lead an effort to block the Pentagon’s proposal to end the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program. Just three months prior, Hunter had vowed lawmakers would reverse the EFV plan.

Even one of the leading congressional supporters of robust Pentagon budgets, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), sounded resigned to additional defense budget shrinkage during a Sunday television interview.

The Pentagon and defense contractors are already fatigued from budget cuts.

The Office of Management and Budget late last year forced Pentagon brass to cut $78 billion over five years — on top of $100 billion defense leaders already were cutting and shifting to hardware programs as part of a self-initiated fat-trimming drill.

It was thought that these steps might insulate the Pentagon from more cuts, but increased worries about the nation’s fiscal future, underlined by Monday’s Standard & Poor’s report downgrading the U.S. debt outlook to negative, have only kept the pressure on the Department of Defense.

While they acknowledge more cuts are coming, pro-defense lawmakers are worried about the implications for Pentagon programs.

“We’re nearing the point already of affecting readiness,” Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, told The Hill. He noted that the 2011 spending bill reduced Obama’s budget request by $18 billion.

Despite his concerns, Young said he “has a few ideas in mind” about items ripe for elimination in the annual Pentagon budget.

McKeon and other Republicans have expressed worries that eliminating more hardware programs could “hollow out” America’s combat forces and terminate weapons programs, but defense analysts, former budget officials and congressional aides say it’s still possible to cut fat from the Pentagon’s budget.

Adams said Obama’s speech “sets a tone” for future cuts, but that these reductions do not have to mean cuts to weapons programs, at least for now.

“The president said security spending — not just Pentagon spending,” Adams noted. “That covers a bunch of things that are not within the Department of Defense.”

Another analyst said Obama only wants to cut about 4 percent of the $10 trillion the nation is projected to spend on national security through 2012.

“Finding an average of $33 billion in annual savings in America’s current, overgrown security apparatus is not likely to entail heavy political lifting for this president or whoever follows him,” Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute wrote in an essay posted Tuesday on Forbes.com.

Pentagon officials likely can meet coming budget-reduction targets by continuing to trim the military’s bloated infrastructure; slimming the ranks of uniformed personnel; and bringing home some number of troops now permanently stationed in places like Europe, analysts and former officials said Tuesday.

That means weapons programs should be safe, defense sources say — especially because
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, since 2009, already has terminated most poorly performing or unneeded combat systems.

“We have to assume weapon programs will only get nicked under this kind of plan, because they have only gotten nicked the last couple of years” as the Bush-era security spending spree was ending, Thompson said.

Defense officials should be able to do what Obama envisions “with their eyes closed,” Adams said.
Aides also suggested big weapons-program cuts are unlikely.

“It’s not so much about cutting as it is finding greater efficiency within the current budget,” one GOP aide said.

“There certainly are areas where funding needs to be re-examined while shortfalls in other areas, particularly over time, could have an undermining effect on readiness and combat effectiveness. … It’s about finding efficiency in the budget to stop spending on certain things and reinvesting most, if not all, of those dollars in preparing the U.S. military for the threats of the future.”