Gen. Dempsey outlines ‘significant,’ but not ‘bold,’ cuts to budget plan

The budget plan the Pentagon will send Congress in February will be “significant” but not “bold” in enacting the first tranche of a $350 billion spending cut, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Friday.

That spending cut will span a decade, and senior defense officials have said the first $260 billion in cuts will be included in a five-year spending plan that will accompany the Pentagon’s 2013 budget request.

The 2013-2017 spending plan “will be significant” in terms of changes to things like personnel, hardware programs, research and development, maintenance and other accounts, Dempsey said at an Atlantic Council-sponsored forum.

“It will not be incremental,” the chairman said, “nor something I would describe as bold.”

His comments came days after Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said his service has been able to keep its hardware modernization programs intact as it absorbed its portion of the $350 billion cut. The Marines trimmed over 15,000 troops and is reducing “capacity” elsewhere, he said.

Some pro-military lawmakers from both political parties have expressed worries that the reduced funding — rather than strategy — would drive all Pentagon decisions.

But Dempsey said Defense officials have avoided that scenario.

“Strategy is a little bit in the lead” of fiscal factors in the decisionmaking process, he said.

The approach taken in building the slimmer 2013 budget has been to “re-balance” the force after a decade at war, while ensuring it is not “a one-trick pony,” Dempsey said.

Officials have tried to build their investment plans with lessons gleaned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — “and we darn well better if we consider ourselves a learning organization,” the chairman said.

The budget-build also factored in how the military is different from the pre-9/11 force: It has more special-operations forces and their specialty gear, for instance. And it is building a force to guard against and conduct offensive cyber attacks.

“So the question there is: Are those additive … or can we … re-define ourselves based on the last 10 years?” he asked rhetorically. “The key here is re-balancing.”

The Obama administration is planning $524 billion in Pentagon spending for 2013, a nearly $50 billion cut.

A summary of an Office of Management and Budget document obtained last week by The Hill details how much the administration intends to devote to the Pentagon’s base and war budgets over five years.
The Pentagon’s 2012 budget plan contained a five-year spending blueprint that proposed a $570.7 billion base military budget for 2013. The $46.8 billion reduction revealed in the OMB document, known in defense circles as the “pass-back memo," is needed to fit under spending caps included in the Budget Control Act.

Military officials have said in recent weeks that the $350 billion cut — which they say will mean a $492 billion real-world reduction — over the next decade will not put national security in jeopardy.

Though a cut from planned spending, a $524 billion base budget could well be an increase over what eventually will be enacted by Congress for this fiscal year.

But the tenor changes when Defense officials are asked about the possibility of cutting an additional $600 billion over the same span. That reduction would be triggered in 2013 unless lawmakers pass legislation to change the sequestered cuts mandated by the August debt-ceiling deal.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls that a “doomsday” scenario that will make the military a “paper tiger” and a “hollow force” — though some Democratic lawmakers and left-leaning analysts say that contention is overblown.

Dempsey reiterated Friday that the Pentagon has not done one ounce of budgetary or strategy planning for the $600 billion in additional cuts.

“I don’t know what that world would look like,” Dempsey said. That’s because “our effort has been focused on” dealing with the $350 billion cut and what kind of force the nation will need in 2020, he said.