By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 5:40 PM
OTTAWA - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Pentagon is facing a spending "crisis" and could be forced to make immediate cuts in training and operations because Congress has failed to approve a final budget for the military this year.
Gates said the Defense Department might have to cut projected spending by as much as $23 billion this year unless Congress acts soon. The Obama administration submitted its annual budget proposal of $549 billion for the Pentagon 11 months ago, but lawmakers have not taken a final vote.
In the meantime, Congress has agreed to temporarily fund the military and other branches of the government based on spending levels from the 2010 federal budget. That provides for about $526 billion in defense spending, Pentagon officials said, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I have a crisis on my doorstep. And I want them to deal with the crisis on my doorstep," Gates said in a joint interview with The Washington Post, the Associated Press and the New York Times aboard his military aircraft Wednesday evening as he flew to Ottawa for meetings with Canadian defense officials.
Although Gates said U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan "will probably be pretty well protected" from any potential cuts this year, he said domestic training and maintenance would have to be curtailed for the Army, Air Force and Navy. "Frankly, that's how you hollow out a military, even in wartime," he said.
Congress often drags its feet in budgetary matters, but its deliberations were further delayed after the GOP won control of the House of Representatives in November. Republicans traditionally have been proponents of robust defense spending. But with the U.S. government facing record deficits, some party leaders have said the Pentagon - which accounts for nearly a fifth of the federal budget - shouldn't escape scrutiny.
For nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Pentagon has benefited from huge spending increases authorized by Congress. But with the war in Iraq winding down and federal debts piling up, Gates has increasingly had to fight to shield the military from budget cutters.
On Jan. 6, Gates announced that the administration would cut $78 billion over the next five years from the Pentagon's long-term spending plan. While the Defense Department's budget would continue to grow during that time, it would do so at a much slower pace and would not exceed inflation by 2016.
To meet those targets, Gates proposed killing a troubled $15 billion Marine Corps program to build a new amphibious landing craft, delaying production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and shrinking the size of the Army and Marine Corps by a combined 42,000 to 47,000.
While Gates said the Pentagon could live with those trims, he warned lawmakers at the time not to go deeper, saying further reductions would be "risky at best and potentially calamitous."
The additional expense of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is also expected to drop substantially in the coming years.
In the interview Wednesday, Gates said the administration would ask Congress for $120 billion in supplemental funding for the wars in 2012, down from the $159 billion it sought for 2011.
Although Obama has expanded the war in Afghanistan - about 97,000 troops are deployed there, roughly triple the number when he took office two years ago - U.S. involvement in Iraq is unwinding rapidly. All U.S. troops are scheduled to return from Iraq by the end of the year.
Even as Gates tries to fend off demands from deficit hawks to cut more, he is confronting concern from other lawmakers who argue that he's gone too far.
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has said he is "not happy" with the proposed $78 billion in long-term reductions, adding that it makes little sense to talk about shrinking the Army and Marine Corps while the nation still has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I will not support initiatives that will leave our military less capable and less able to fight," he said Wednesday as his committee grilled military brass and Pentagon civilian officials about Gates's plan.
Some lawmakers, mindful of the economic benefits that defense contractors bring to their districts, questioned Gates's decision to kill the Marines' amphibious landing craft, known as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Still others criticized the Pentagon's proposal to increase health-care premiums for military retirees for the first time since 1995.
In the interview, Gates rebutted those criticisms by repeating his warning that the cuts would get much worse and come more quickly if Congress did not pass the Pentagon's current-year budget soon. He questioned the "seriousness of those who are worried about reductions to the defense budget" and dismissed their concerns as "simply rhetoric without action" if they fail to approve a budget in the coming weeks.
Gates's battles with Congress come as his four-year tenure as defense secretary is nearing an end. He has said he hopes to retire this year but has steadfastly refused to provide a specific date.
In the interview, he said "my lips are sealed" about his specific departure plans, but added, "I'm going to be around for a number of months."