But as lawmakers and the White House move closer to a grand bargain that could reshape the country’s fiscal priorities, Pentagon budget planners are scrambling to keep up. Military officials said they are girding for the possibility that they will have to reduce projected spending by as much as $800 billion over the next 12 years.
That’s twice the worst-case forecast they confronted as recently as April, when President Obama warned his administration that it might have to cut $400 billion from its national-security budgets over the same time frame.
“We’re doing due diligence on that,” Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast last week. “But the reality is you’re most worried about a deeper cut. Is there another $400 billion beyond the first $400 billion?”
That has opened the door to internal discussion on whether the Pentagon will have to revisit several high-profile weapons programs that until recently were considered safe.
The Navy, for instance, is feeling pressure to cancel its next-generation ballistic-missile submarine and to reduce its fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. The Air Force is facing renewed doubts about its futuristic long-range bomber. And the Army is worried that it will have to shrink the size of its active-duty force even further; the number of soldiers is already planned to drop from 569,000 to 520,000 over the next five years.
Officially, the Pentagon says nothing is off the table when it comes to possible cuts. In April, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered a “comprehensive review” of Pentagon spending, saying he wanted to reconsider the department’s strategic priorities instead of just ordering across-the-board spending reductions.
The results of that review, however, are not scheduled to be released until February, which could render the Pentagon’s recommendations moot if Congress and the White House agree on a deal before then.
New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who took office July 1 after Gates’s retirement, has said little publicly in reaction to the various proposals to curtail defense spending. But as a longtime budget expert in Congress and the Clinton administration, he is expected to endorse any agreement hammered out between Obama and lawmakers.
In the past, the Pentagon could count on strong support for ever-rising budgets from Republicans and conservative Democrats. But that has changed rapidly; even some GOP leaders are now calling for once-unthinkable reductions in military spending.