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Pentagon wants to save $55 billion through cuts in major weapons programs

WASHINGTON—The Pentagon has proposed the most significant reductions in weapons purchases since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The cuts are an attempt to save money, with the Iraq war costing at least $5 billion per month and the federal budget deficit growing.

The proposed cuts would save as much as $55 billion over six years beginning in 2006. The plan calls for significant cuts or cancellation of such big-ticket items as the F-22 fighter jet, the C-130J cargo plane, a Navy aircraft carrier and the ballistic missile-defense program.

Congressional districts from Florida to California face job losses if Congress approves the cuts, and lawmakers from both parties are scrambling to try to prevent that from happening. A new round of discussions about whether to close some military bases also begins this year.

The outcome not only will affect jobs, especially in defense-heavy states such as Texas and Georgia, but also could shape military readiness for years to come, lawmakers and defense analysts said.

"The biggest factor driving these cuts is the budget deficit," said Steven Kosiak, the director of budget studies for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy research group. "The costs of ongoing military operations in Iraq, which could total as much as $100 billion this year alone, have certainly made the deficit substantially worse."

Kosiak predicted that in the long term the Defense Department would have to scale back its modernization plans and cut even more weapons programs. Part of the reason is that the cost of many weapons programs has grown substantially, and the Pentagon also must deal with the rising costs of military pay, health care and operations, he said.

The proposed cuts to the weapons programs wouldn't mean an overall decrease in military spending, which now tops $400 billion a year without counting the costs of the war.

The proposed cuts were outlined in a memo that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz approved Dec. 23 and was then promptly leaked. The document outlines budgetary changes in 36 programs, including $364 million in extra spending for foreign-language training for soldiers and an additional $2.2 billion for defense against chemical and biological attacks.

The Army would get $25 billion over the next six years to restructure its forces into smaller and better-equipped units that could be deployed more rapidly around the world. New weapons that the Air Force, Navy and Marines say they need would be cut.

The Air Force would see its F-22 fighter program slashed by nearly $11 billion, scaling back to 170 aircraft from the 277 fighters that it had planned to buy through 2011. The C-130J aircraft program would be eliminated, at a savings of more than $4.1 billion, but leaving the Air Force without 42 aircraft it planned to buy to haul troops and cargo. The Marines would lose another 20 of the planes configured as aerial tankers.

The Navy would lose one of its oldest carriers, the USS John F. Kennedy, originally slated for retirement for 2018. Even the missile-defense program, which President Bush has declared a national security priority, would be slashed by $5 billion over the next six years.

The cuts have set off a scramble among lawmakers, who argue that the programs are crucial to the nation's defense, especially with the war on terrorism expected to last for years.

The Florida delegation, led by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, has introduced a bill to require the Navy to maintain its current fleet of 12 carriers. The Kennedy's homeport is Naval Station Mayport at Jacksonville, Fla.

"As far as Senator Nelson is concerned, this is a national security issue," said spokesman Bryan Gulley. "We're at war, and now is not the time to reduce our carrier fleet."

The Georgia delegation is lobbying the White House to save the C-130J program and the F-22 fighter, both of which would be built partly in Georgia.

Twenty-four senators from across the country faxed a letter to Bush on Tuesday, urging him to save the C-130 cargo plane, arguing that it's essential to getting troops and supplies around the globe while the nation is at war.

"We simply think the decision to terminate the C-130 program is a bad mistake," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said in a conference call Wednesday.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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