By William Branigin and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 7:56 PM
A day after President Obama pressed Congress for spending reductions in his State of the Union address, House Republicans and Democrats challenged some of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's plans to cut $78 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next five years.
At the opening hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, the new Republican chairman, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), said that while he agrees with Gates "that we must scrutinize defense programs to ensure we are getting the most bang for our buck and concentrating our limited resources on the highest-priority programs . . . I will not support initiatives that will leave our military less capable and less able to fight."
Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III told the committee that over the past six months, the services had achieved Gates's goal of saving $100 billion over the next five years by reducing excess spending and ending programs such as the Marines' amphibious landing craft. The savings are to be applied toward each service's operating expenses and spent on weapons deemed necessary.
In addition, at the direction of the White House, the services have projected $78 billion more in cuts in overall Pentagon spending in the five years beginning in 2012. McKeon took issue with those reductions, saying the military services are not allowed to reallocate savings derived from shrinking the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
At the hearing, lawmakers from both parties questioned Lynn and the assistant Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., about the Marines' amphibious craft, known as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). The craft, designed to travel 25 knots at sea and 45 mph on land, is under development by Falls Church-based General Dynamics. The price of the vehicle has ballooned from $5 million in 1995, when the plan was to buy more than 1,000, to $17 million today. Under current plans, 573 would be purchased.
Several committee members, including some with factories in their districts that are providing elements of the EFV, questioned whether the decision would waste the more than $3 billion already invested in the craft. Dunford said some EFV elements could be used in a new, less expensive amphibious vehicle that the Marines will procure in an accelerated development program.
Lawmakers also criticized Gates's plan to reduce Pentagon health-care spending by raising premiums for retired service personnel who are still working. "We believe it is time to lift the 15-year freeze on TRICARE enrollment fees for working-age retirees," Lynn said. The plan is to increase the payment based on the rise in the cost of living. When one congressman complained that such a move would break a pledge to those who expected the low fee to continue, Lynn said that without raising the fee with the cost of living, beneficiaries' costs were actually dropping.
Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.