The 2012 spending plan the Pentagon will deliver to Capitol Hill on Monday will feature few surprises, but it will make clear that the post-9/11 military spending spree has ended, congressional aides and analysts say.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates already has revealed the Pentagon will seek $553 billion in its 2012 Pentagon budget plan — the largest request ever — and slower growth than planned over the next four years. He also has revealed proposals to end several major weapons programs, including the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV).
That means the spending plan “will be anti-climactic in the broad sense,” according to one senior House defense aide.
But the spending plan will make clear that the Pentagon will no longer be spending money at the rapid rate seen in the years after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Gates announced in January that the White House ordered the Pentagon to cut $78 billion over five years, but added the military was able to largely offset that due to the success of his internal cost-cutting efforts.
“There is clear desire by the White House to draw down total annual defense funding — as soon as possible,” said Jim McAleese, a Virginia-based defense consultant.
Adm. Michael Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, last week told an industry conference that “hard times” are ahead for the defense budget.
“With the deficit at $1.5 trillion for FY 2011, and tax cuts taken off the table for at least the next two years, pressure is building to reduce government spending, and DoD is not likely to be immune from this,” said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “In a period of fiscal austerity, that means DoD will have to accept some risks and divest of lower-priority programs and capabilities.”
Jim Thomas, also of CSBA, said last week the budget plan would feature “no surprises.”
Defense insiders expect no further weapons program terminations beyond what Gates announced in January.
But congressional aides and analysts say the spending plan should shed new light on how the Pentagon plans to proceed with several high-profile programs.
For instance, Capitol Hill will be looking for additional information about the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter plans, congressional aides say. Lawmakers and aides want to know how many Lockheed Martin-made F-35s the military will need for future missions.
The spending blueprint should also offer evidence on how many additional Boeing-made F/A-18E/F fighters it might need to offset continuing F-35 problems that could lead to fewer buys of that jet, aides say.
Aides also expect defense officials will once again opt against funding a second engine for the F-35 fleet.
“That means we’ll have to keep that going,” one House defense aide said, which would set up yet another battle between DoD brass and lawmakers who are opposed to spending billions on the second engine, being built by Rolls-Royce and General Electric.
The latest version of the alternative engine clash comes amid a new backdrop: Congress is focused on deep spending cuts to help shrink the massive federal deficit, and some critics of the second F-35 engine call it an earmark.
Also of interest will be funding and other programmatic details for the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program, which the service recently re-launched after pursuing a set of specs deemed overly ambitious.
The House aide said many will be looking for whether program plans are not “ahead of where the technology allows.”
Congressional aides also want to see what the spending plan tells them about the Army’s plans to buy new helicopter models or purchase additional models of existing choppers.
The budget drop is expected to set off a battle in Congress over defense funding levels. Many Tea Party-backed conservatives have yet to state their feelings on the proper size of annual defense budgets, while Democrats and some Republican leaders say Pentagon cuts should be on the table.
House Republicans, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), say large cuts to defense spending would hurt national security.
Annual defense budgets are now about $150 billion above historical “peaks,” McAleese said, and about $300 billion above “post-conflict defense funding troughs.”