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Pentagon releases plan that cuts projected spending, increases base budget

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon released a budget blueprint Thursday that cuts projected military spending by nearly half a trillion dollars, yet still calls for increasing the base defense budget in all but one of the next five years.

(GRAPHIC: Chart shows the projected U.S. Defense Dept. budget to 2017; highlights of congressionally-mandated reductions.)

The proposal meets both goals because spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is dropping sharply, allowing the base budget — the annual cost of paying troops and buying planes, ships and tanks — to increase modestly, even while complying with last year’s bipartisan deal in Congress to reduce the deficit.

For President Barack Obama, the apparent paradox of being able to cut and raise defense spending at the same time is potentially a political boon in his re-election bid.

To Democrats who believe the Pentagon is bloated and should do more to help reduce the national deficit, he can say that his budget would do so. To Republicans who say defense cuts will leave the country vulnerable, he can say he is spending more every year except in 2013 — and holding the line against further reductions.

Others are likely to seize on how the proposed cuts will affect jobs at bases and defense plants across the country.

“Make no mistake, the savings that we are proposing will impact all 50 states and many districts, congressional districts across America,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference.

Panetta acknowledged that so-called spending cuts are only reductions in projected growth, not actual cuts in current spending. Nonetheless, he called the budget plan “tough” and “real” and said “it’s something that obviously will cause some pain.”

The $525 billion sought in fiscal year 2013 is $6 billion less than Congress approved for 2012.

But over the next four years, the Pentagon budget would rise each year, reaching $567 billion by 2017. In inflated adjusted dollars, spending is essentially flat, Pentagon projections show.

War spending, which is funded separately by Congress, would fall from $115 billion this year to $88 billion in 2013 and presumably even further in subsequent years as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, though no estimates were provided.

The Pentagon blueprint would cancel several weapons programs, slow purchases of aircraft and submarines, reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps, shrink the number of Army combat brigades and Air Force squadrons, and move some forces now deployed overseas back to the United States.

The plan is meant to shift spending away from the heavy commitment of troops and equipment needed to fight the wars of the last decade, and to instead beef up the Navy and other assets to help counter Iran, China and North Korea.

The plan envisions buying more unmanned drones, preserving special operations units built up over the last decade, and maintaining a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, so the U.S. can project power overseas even while cutting back on conventional ground forces.

Congress has final say on both the size and the spending priorities of the defense budget.

Some critics immediately weighed in. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the budget imposed unacceptable cuts on the military.

“I am deeply concerned that the size and scope of these cuts would repeat the mistakes of history and leave our forces too small to respond effectively to events that may unfold over the next few years,” McCain said in a statement.

Though overall spending on unmanned aircraft will go up, the budget cancels funding for a version of the Global Hawk high altitude reconnaissance drone, which was purchased as a replacement for the U2 spy plane but has proved too expensive, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

In one of the biggest savings proposals, the Pentagon would buy only 29 F-35 joint strike fighters in 2013, or 13 fewer than previously planned, U.S. officials said. Not due to enter service until 2017 or 2018, the single-engine fighter has been plagued by costs overruns and technical difficulties.

Panetta called the aircraft “essential,” but said “we want to make sure before we go into full production that we are ready.”

Two of the four Army brigades now in Europe would be brought home to the U.S., and the Army and Marines would shift to a rotational training plan under which more units would deploy overseas to conduct exercises with allies in Europe and Asia.

The Army plans to cut at least eight of its 45 combat brigades, which now have between 3,500 to 5,000 troops. But it also plans to increase the size of each brigade, allowing them to maintain combat power. The Air Force’s 60 tactical squadrons would drop to 54.

The Pentagon proposal is only the opening move in a complex budget debate. Further details of the defense plan will be released next month along with the administration’s full fiscal year 2013 budget.

If Congress doesn’t pass additional deficit-reduction measures in the next year, the Defense Department could face the prospect of automatic reductions of as much as another half a trillion dollars.

Panetta said he hoped Congress would act to stop the additional cuts, which he said would “hollow out the force and damage our national defense for a generation.”

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