DOD braces for expected budget cuts

The financial meltdown might have a serious impact on future Defense Department spending, reports The New York Times.

Across the military services, deep apprehension has led to closed-door meetings and detailed calculations in anticipation of potential cuts. Civilian and military budget planners concede that they are already analyzing worst-case contingency spending plans that would freeze or slash their overall budgets. Defense Department planners, top commanders and weapons manufacturers are all in agreement that money will be tight for defense programs in the years ahead.

The obvious targets for savings would be expensive new arms programs, which have racked up cost overruns of at least $300 billion for the top 75 weapons systems, according to the Government Accountability Office. Congressional budget experts say likely targets for reductions are the Army's plans for fielding advanced combat systems, the Air Force's Joint Strike Fighter, the Navy's new destroyer and the ground-based missile defense system.

Even before the crisis on Wall Street, senior Pentagon officials were anticipating little appetite for growth in military spending after seven years of war. But the question of how to pay for national security now looms as a significant challenge for the next president, at a time when the Pentagon's annual base budget for standard operations has reached more than $500 billion, the highest level since World War II when adjusted for inflation.

On top of that figure, supplemental spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has topped $100 billion each year, frustrating Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress. In all, the Defense Department now accounts for half of the government's total discretionary spending, and Pentagon and military officials fear it could be the choice for major cuts to pay the rest of the government's bills.

On the presidential campaign trail, Sens. John McCain Barack Obama have pledged to cut fat without carving into the muscle of national security. Both have said they would protect the overall level of military spending; Mr. McCain has further pledged to add more troops to the roster of the armed services beyond the 92,000 now advocated by the Pentagon, a growth endorsed by Obama.

Some critics, citing the increase in military spending since Sept. 11, 2001, say it would be much easier to cut military spending than programs like Social Security and Medicare at a time when most people's retirement savings are dwindling because of the financial crisis. Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has raised the idea of reducing military spending by one-quarter.

At the Pentagon, senior officials have taken up the mission of urging sustained military spending. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, has asked Congress and the nation to pledge at least 4 percent of the gross domestic product to the military. And Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned against repeating historic trends, in which the nation cut money for the armed services after a period of warfare.

"We basically gutted our military after World War I, after World War II, in certain ways after Korea, certainly after Vietnam and after the end of the cold war," Gates said. "Experience is the ability to recognize a mistake when you make it again."

Gates acknowledges that military spending is almost certain to level off, and he expressed a goal that the Pentagon budget at least keep pace with inflation over coming years.

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