Pentagon’s proposed budget about same as last year

President Obama’s $3.77 trillion budget reforms Social Security and increases some taxes but there are scores of less discussed provisions. Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews explains some of them. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

President Obama’s proposed $526.6 billion defense budget would keep military spending relatively steady in 2014, while calling on the Pentagon to find $150 billion in savings over the next decade as it wraps up an era of costly ground wars and invests to fight emerging threats such as cybersecurity.

The plan’s biggest pitfall may be that it was drawn up under the assumption that automatic cuts mandated by Congress will somehow be averted by the end of this fiscal year, an assumption that analysts called foolhardy.

Analysts said the budget also is problematic because the bottom line is predicated on initiatives that lawmakers have rejected, including base closures, cuts to health-care benefits and the elimination of weapons systems.

The plan puts off decisions on steeper troop reductions and deep cuts to weapons programs — steps that would achieve bigger savings. The proposal amounts to a roughly 1 percent drop in spending compared with 2013.

As the budget blueprint was released, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Defense Department wants to work with lawmakers to make critical fiscal changes that have been blocked previously, arguing that the nation’s debt crisis should force leaders to reach difficult compromises.

“Current fiscal realities demand that we make tough decisions that have been deferred in the past,” he told reporters Wednesday. “The longer we put this off, the harder it’s going to be, particularly given the uncertainty that still exists about future levels of defense spending.”

Critics started knocking the budget hours before it was officially presented. Some said the proposed spending level remained unreasonably high while others argued that some of the specific cuts it outlines were unwise. Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the the president’s plan would meet stiff opposition in Congress.

“This proposal only continues his unfortunate history of saddling the men and women of our military with disproportionate and illogical budget cuts that drastically undermine the readiness and capabilities they need to operate in an increasingly dangerous world,” Inhofe said in a statement.

Defense budget debates occur every year, but the fight over next fiscal year’s finances is likely to be unusually complex and protracted. It is complicated by the intricate politics of debt reduction policy, which last month triggered $41 billion in automatic cuts the military must absorb evenly across the force by Oct 1. If the White House and Congress are unable to reach a compromise on comprehensive spending reductions this year, the process known as sequestration could continue to chip away at the Pentagon’s budget, cutting as much as $500 billion over the next decade.

The current round of dealmaking begins amid concern about the prospect of armed conflict in the Korean Peninsula, where the North Korean leader has vowed to go to war with his southern neighbor and threatened to fire missiles at the United States. Pyongyang’s warmongering has put U.S. defense officials in a bind, as they continue to portray sequestration as a dire threat to military readiness and affirm to foes and allies that the country’s military might remains robust.

“The administration is trapped between a rock and a hard place,” said Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “I think it causes confusion abroad, where allies are really sensitive to changes in our defense budget.”

Hagel said that North Korea is “skating very close to a dangerous line,” but vowed that the United States “is ready for any contingency.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the budget plan assumes that an alternative to sequestration will be found and lamented that “uncertainty persists about what the top line will be for this and any future budget.”

He said the document reflects an “investment in our priorities,” which include funding troops deployed overseas, bolstering cyber-defense capabilities, and maintaining conventional and nuclear weapons.

A striking omission is an estimated cost of supporting operations in Afghanistan and drawing down troops and equipment. The budget set spending for Afghanistan at $88.5 billion, about the same level as last year. But officials said that figure will almost certainly be revised as final decisions are made on the pace of the Afghan drawdown and the military gets a clearer sense of how much it will cost to ship back troops and their gear.

Gordon Adams, a national security budget expert who served in the Clinton White House, called the proposed defense budget “illusory,” saying he thinks the type of compromise on deficit reduction that would make the plan viable is highly unlikely.

“They continue to harbor the illusion that sequestration is a horrible thing that needs to go away,” he said.

Sharp, the other defense budget analyst, said the longer sequestration remains in effect, the less likely an alternative approach becomes.

“Once it sinks in as the status quo and all the political costs have been incurred, there’s no reason to try to undo it,” he said.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.

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