Heaviest 2013 defense budget cuts would fall on troops

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 13, 2012 

WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon sought to show Monday that it had made tough spending decisions in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal, the brunt of the reductions would fall on U.S. ground troops, which face job losses, modest pay raises and increased health care costs while serving in a smaller force.

Even with those cuts, however, the Pentagon's base budget, which excludes most war spending, would decrease only slightly next year — from the current $531 billion to $525 billion — before rising to $534 billion in 2014.

The proposed budget shifts some long-term war costs into the base budget and includes greater spending on operations and maintenance, a driver of the growth. By the 2017 fiscal year, the base budget is projected to reach $567 billion.

The Pentagon has said it's responding to the economic downturn by saving $259.4 billion, but that reflects only cuts in the projected growth of spending through the 2017 fiscal year.

"Despite the president's good intentions to improve the balance between military and non-military security spending, the budget leaves it essentially unchanged through 2016," Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank, said in a statement.

The budget is intended to reflect the Obama administration's new defense strategy, which calls for a leaner, more agile force that's prepared for any kind of threat, while focusing on Asia and the Middle East. The strategy, which officials introduced last month, said the military must be ready to conduct several operations at the same time.

Under the new budget plan, which Congress must approve, Pentagon officials said that some troops — although it didn't specify how many — would be forced to leave the military as the department shrank the size of the services. By 2017, the Army is projected to shrink by 72,000 soldiers to 490,000, the Marines will shrink by 20,000 to 182,000, the Navy will shrink by 6,200 to 319,500 and the Air Force will shrink by 4,200 to 328,600.

Robert Hale, the Pentagon's comptroller, said the military would be "humane" in its cuts, and that they'd still leave a larger force than before the wars started. In 2001, there were 480,000 soldiers and 180,000 Marines.

The Pentagon called for retiring some planes that transport troops, including 27 C-5As and 65 C-130s. It said it planned to reduce pay raises to below private-sector levels, with troops receiving 1.7 percent raises for the next two years, followed by 0.5 percent increases in 2015 and 1 percent hikes in 2016.

The budget also would delay the purchase of several weapons systems — notably 179 of the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. military history. Hale said the delay was to give the developer, Lockheed Martin, time to correct problems with the system, but critics have charged that delaying the purchases while not canceling them outright kicked the decision down the road and potentially raises the cost per system in the future.

Service members also will face increased health care fees, deductibles and co-payments phased in over several years, although the Pentagon didn't offer specifics. Military-age retirees who make more than $45,179 annually — a pension usually reserved for officers — will see their health care costs nearly quadruple, from $600 annually in fiscal year 2013 to $2,048 in 2017.

The United States withdrew forces from Iraq in December, but the Pentagon asked for $2.9 billion to spend there, largely to pay for the removal of equipment still in the country, Hale said. Another $88.5 billion in contingency funding will pay for operations in Afghanistan in the new fiscal year.

Some of the figures don't appear to reflect the Pentagon's stated goals. The Defense Department has called training Afghan security forces a key to its strategy to exit Afghanistan, yet the budget proposal cuts spending on that training mission by half, from $11.2 billion this fiscal year to $5.7 billion in 2013.

Hale said military officials thought that start-up costs for the mission of training some 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers_ such as spending on infrastructure for new Afghan bases and supplying the Afghans with uniforms and weapons — had passed.

"Don't take that reduction as any sign of a reduction in our commitment" to Afghan forces, Hale said. "We are fully committed to them."

Even the reduced spending on Afghan security forces, however, is more than the Army would spend on schools, day care centers and commissaries for its soldiers' families. The Army asked for $8.5 billion for military family support.

Hale said the department also would ask Congress to start two rounds of base realignments and closures — the always-controversial proceedings known as BRAC — in 2013 and 2015, which he said would lead to $5 billion in savings. Those savings aren't yet included in the budget proposal, Hale said.

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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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