The Pentagon is preparing the fiscal 2014 budget, but the November elections and Congress’s lame- duck session could change it all.

The gap between President Obama’s strategy for the U.S. military over the next 10 years and Mitt Romney’s defense proposals couldn’t be greater.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Pentagon reporters Thursday that Congress has provided funds through March 2013 at essentially the fiscal 2012 level, but he doesn’t know what the new Congress will give him for the rest of next year.

But Panetta’s team may be working under two possibly false assumptions. One is that President Obama wins the election. The other — that before Dec. 31 the lame-duck Congress approves legislation, which the president signs, that gets rid of the additional forced $55 billion reductions in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget. That’s the “sequester” that would begin Jan. 2 under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Panetta is probably right that the sequester cuts for 2013 will go away. As he put it, “with the president’s comments and my comments and everybody else’s comments [especially Romney’s], the hope is that sequester won’t happen.”

A Romney win would require major changes. Such would be the case if a newly elected Romney tries to implement some of his defense campaign promises in the first 100 days.

The reality is that the Obama plan, developed in response to the U.S. deficit problem, is already in effect. Take the first reduction of $487 billion in previously planned spending over the next 10 years. That cap was worked out in a bipartisan agreement a year ago and made part of the 2011 Budget Control Act. The first $45 billion of that reduction is part of the fiscal 2013 defense budget, which was approved by the Republican-controlled House.

In a talk Oct. 6, 2011, aboard the retired aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, now a floating museum in the harbor at Charleston, S.C., Romney said he would “add 100,000 active-duty troops” to the Army so it would not need to turn to the National Guard for additional forces.

The next day, in a major speech at The Citadel, Romney promised, “As president, on Day One, I will . . . reverse President Obama’s massive defense cuts,” a pledge he has often repeated. He also said in his first 100 days he would “announce an initiative to increase the shipbuilding rate from nine per year to 15. I will begin reversing Obama-era cuts to national missile defense and prioritize the full deployment of a multilayered national ballistic missile defense system.”

How will he do it? It’s a question of not only where the funds will come from but also what strategy he will be following, other than just handing more money to the Pentagon for more ships and planes and to add more forces.

Romney has said wants to do more than just reduce Obama’s 100,000-person troop reduction (planned over the next five years as part of the Budget Control Act): He wants to return to troop levels of the Cold War or even further.

In his 2010 book “No Apology,” Romney said part of his agenda was to “add at least 100,000 troops to our ground forces.” He wrote that well before the Obama reduction plan.

On Sept. 13 in Northern Virginia, Romney said: “This president has done something I find very hard to understand. Ever since FDR we’ve had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once and he’s said no, we’re going to cut that back to only one conflict.”

Romney has changed the purpose of the 100,000, saying now that he wants to reverse the Obama reductions and forgetting what he wrote two years ago, when the troops were to enlarge the then-existing force.

But more than just numbers are involved. The Obama strategy, based on future threats, calls for additional independent, smaller units and has already been built into military planning. Personnel and operations funding has been built into the plan for the next five years and carried in the fiscal 2013 budget, which is still before Congress, as well as fiscal 2014 now in final preparation.

As Army Secretary John McHugh, a former 17-year Republican congressman, told reporters on Oct. 22, “the reality is that after 11 years of war, the Army is going to have to do its job with less. The good news is . . . we’ve already started.”

As the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, recently told the Association of the U.S. Army, a reorganization based on current threats is underway that will see “trained squads and platoons that are the foundation for our company, battalion or brigade combat teams, organized for specific mission sets and regional conditions.”

Today’s Pentagon is winding up direct combat in Afghanistan and looking at a world in which officials, civilian and military, expect complex battlefields where the United States will primarily provide training and other support to friendly forces.

That’s why there are thousands of Army troops “deployed to places like Kuwait, Kosovo, the Sinai, the Horn of Africa” and “in nearly 160 nations around the globe,” according to Odierno.

Still, he said, the Army “must preserve the ability to reassemble our forces rapidly, building the mass necessary to decisively defeat a determined enemy.”

Romney should realize the old two-war theory was a myth. The Bush administration financed Afghanistan and Iraq on a credit card with Congress supplying all the additional funds, though the base defense budget was supposed to handle two wars.

The United States already has, to use Romney’s phrase, a “military second to none.” Spending additional billions may strengthen it but weaken the economy, which is also key to our national security.

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