The Washington Post

Pentagon in cross hairs of debt ‘trigger’

The Pentagon is seen from above in 2009. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The prospect of $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next decade is enough to make Pentagon generals wince and to compel the U.S. military to make big changes to its global strategy. But the cuts can be made without gutting the current force, defense budget analysts said.

The White House already has ordered the Pentagon to come up with about $400 billion in savings over the next 12 years, a reduction that would slow the growth in defense spending to about the current rate of inflation.

The larger and more painful cuts of an additional $600 billion would be triggered only if Republicans and Democrats cannot come to an agreement on a second round of spending cuts in the next four months.

“You could reasonably make those cuts as long as you were willing to rethink our military strategy, not allow for any sacred cows and cut ruthlessly,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an influential defense think tank with close ties to the Pentagon.

On Monday, almost no one was advocating such big reductions, totaling as much as $1 trillion over the next decade, in defense spending. “The president does not — has not called for — and would not support these kinds of cuts in defense spending,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Republicans warned that the cuts would be catastrophic to the U.S. military at a time of growing threats to the nation.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been struggling to even come up with the $400 billion in cuts over 12 years that the president requested. “I don’t think the Defense Department has fully accepted the new budget environment,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing budget negotiations. “They are acting as if the $400-billion cut is the maximum and pushing back. But congressional plans seem to have gone far beyond that.”

To find $1 trillion in savings, the White House would have to make major changes to its current global military strategy, under which the Pentagon should be able to fight two wars like Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously.

Scaling back that requirement would allow for big cuts to the Army and Marine Corps, which collectively have grown by about 92,000 men and women since 2001 and would probably have to shrink at a minimum to pre-2001 levels. In shrinking the force, Congress would be betting that the Afghan war will wind down as planned and that the country will not be drawn into any big, costly counterinsurgency wars in the next 10 to 15 years.

A smaller military would have less of a presence in East Asia, an area of growing concern to the U.S. military and a region that is increasingly important to the health of the world economy.

The prospects of such a pullback were especially alarming to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates before he left the Pentagon. In an interview with The Washington Post this summer, he fretted that big defense cuts could lead to a dangerous “U.S. disengagement from the world.”

Major procurement programs also would have to be slashed to accommodate the $600 billion in cuts. The Air Force’s plans for a new bomber would almost certainly get delayed and the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter program, which carries a price tag in excess of $300 billion, would shrink in size and ambition.

Service members who have seen big increases in entitlements over the last decade to compensate them for the strain of two wars probably would also take a hit. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried unsuccessfully to raise troops’ health insurance premiums, which have not gone up since 1995.

Even the military’s generous pension system, which allows troops to collect half their salary for the rest of their lives after 20 years of service, might be scrapped in favor of a cheaper 401(k) system. “Those kinds of changes would have been a nonstarter before, but given the cuts the Pentagon is facing it is more possible,” said Harrison of the CSBA.

Greg Jaffe covers the White House for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009.

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