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Defense a big winner in spending talks

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A first step to deal with the nation’s budgetary problems began Tuesday with the introduction of a bipartisan fiscal 2013 Continuing Appropriations Resolution, which would provide funds to continue running the government at least through March 27.

The Republican-run House is expected to debate and vote on the continuing resolution — CR — by next week so that the Democratic-controlled Senate would have time to pass it before fiscal 2012 ends Sept. 30. Otherwise, we’ll face another government shutdown.

The CR for the most part continues spending at the fiscal 2012 level, but based on an agreement among the House, the Senate and the White House, it contains an across-the-board increase of 0.6 percent. Overall discretionary spending is $26.6 billion less than this year. That’s primarily because of a $32 billion reduction in fiscal 2013 projected costs for Afghanistan and other overseas military-related operations.

The Defense Department so far appears to have done well. While it represents more than half of the country’s discretionary spending, the CR projects $519 billion for fiscal 2013 defense spending, a figure higher than amounts approved so far by the House or Senate.

The country, however, is far from out of the woods. Beyond the CR looms sequestration, the across-the-board reductions of some 10 percent a year in all discretionary spending if Congress — by the end of this year — does not come up with a plan for $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over the next 10 years. That could be done by program cuts or increased revenue, or a mixture of both. That’s the law approved by a bipartisan vote in Congress and signed by President Obama last year with the passage of the Budget Control Act (BCA).

How Congress deals with sequestration will depend on who wins the November presidential election. As the campaign has vividly shown, seemingly irreconcilable differences remain between Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, between Democrats and Republicans.

Take defense spending. Obama’s plans are laid out in the Pentagon budget delivered to Congress and in testimony before congressional committees.

Romney and congressional Republicans, meanwhile, continue to accuse Obama of reducing defense spending by $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Here’s the math for their claim: They add the congressionally approved $487 billion from the BCA with $500 billion more that would emerge if sequestration happens.

But forget reducing spending when it comes to the Romney plan for defense. Obama has called for reducing U.S. troop levels by 100,000 over five years as U.S. combat forces leave Afghanistan. The start of those reductions in the Army and Marine Corps are already in the Pentagon’s 2013 budget and future plans, but Romney wants to do an about-face. He wants to increase force levels by 100,000. That could cost an additional $20 billion a year, or $200 billion over the next 10 years.

He also has said that he wants to step up U.S. Navy shipbuilding, from nine vessels a year to 15. It costs roughly $18 billion for the current pace of nine ships a year. The Romney plan would add an additional $12 billion, or more than $120 billion to defense spending over the next 10 years.

On Saturday, he threw another costly item into his Pentagon shopping cart. During an interview with WAVY television in Virginia Beach, he raised the idea of reopening the F-22 Raptor fifth-generation stealth fighter production line.

Saying he opposes Obama’s “defense cuts in addition to the sequestration,” Romney said: “Rather than completing nine ships a year, I would complete 15. I would add more F-22s and add more than 100,000 active-duty personnel to our military team.”

He was not asked why he wanted more of what currently is the most expensive fighter ever built or what that would mean for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter now being flight tested.

The F-22 program was ended at 188 Raptors by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in 2009. Although original plans called for 750 planes, the Air Force wanted at least 243 when Gates stopped production because of the F-22’s expense in favor of plans for more than 2,000 F-35s. Each F-22 was estimated to have cost more than $300 million when development costs were included.

In 2009, the Air Force said, “The F-22 cannot be matched by any known or projected fighter aircraft.” But for years it was used primarily to fly air defense missions to protect the U.S. homeland while less-costly airplanes were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some F-22s were recently sent to the Persian Gulf as part of a buildup of U.S. military force to face the threat of Iran’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, an $11.7 billion Air Force program is underway to upgrade the F-22, a cost that “more than doubled” since 2003, when the first estimates were made, according to a Government Accountability Office report. When that is concluded, the total cost for 188 F-22s would reach $80 billion.

Romney did not indicated how many more F-22s he might want. Like many of the former Massachusetts governor’s plans, serious details are missing.

One thing is certain: No matter who wins the election, the Defense Department budget will continue to grow — assuming sequestration is headed off.

That growth would be less under Obama, but who knows how high it would go with Romney.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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