Top Pentagon officials on Wednesday defended Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ proposed multibillion-dollar cuts in military spending in the face of tough questions from Republicans about slashing too deep and jeopardizing U.S. forces.
At the start of the arduous budget process, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told the new GOP-controlled House Armed Services Committee that Gates’ call for cuts of $78 billion “strikes the right balance for these difficult times.”
The military budget would still be $553 billion in the next fiscal year, close to double the 2001 total, and that amount does not include funds for the war in Afghanistan and reduced operations in Iraq. The formal proposal will be submitted to Congress the week of Feb. 14 when President Barack Obama offers his budget.
With the latest projection of a record $1.5 trillion deficit this year, Republicans and Democrats are clamoring for significant spending cuts, with some arguing that the military’s budget should be part of any calculation. Yet some lawmakers fear deep cuts will undermine the military in a time of war and question elimination of weapons that often mean jobs back home.
“I will not support any measures that stress our forces and jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “I will also oppose any plans that have the potential to damage or jeopardize our national security.”
Specifically, several committee members expressed concern about Gates’ plan to cancel the $12 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle that would transport Marines from ship to shore. Gates said that money will be used to buy additional ships, F-18 jets and new electronic jammers.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant Marine commandant, told the committee the cost of the each vehicle had tripled, from $5 million apiece in 1995 to $17 million now.
But lawmakers complained that they were not privy to the decision-making process and questioned whether it was dictated by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
“Some edicts come down from on high,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. “And you put a rosy face on it.”
Rep. W. Todd Akin, R-Mo., assailed the unilateral decisions and said of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, “the assumptions are very thin.”
Military spending has created divisions within Republicans ranks, with some tea party-backed lawmakers favoring deep cuts. This week, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky proposed a $500 billion cut in the overall federal budget, including $16 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., hopes to appeal to new lawmakers’ fiscal concerns in his push to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by year’s end, a far quicker timetable than Obama’s. The administration plans to begin the drawdown of troops in July, but senior military officials say significant drawdowns might not happen until closer to 2014, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai has promised to take over security of the country.
With the help of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and his tea party-style organization, FreedomWorks, Jones has invited more than a dozen lawmakers to a Afghanistan policy briefing next month. Among the speakers is Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.
In an interview, Jones put war costs at $7 billion a month. He said Afghanistan is a “no-win situation.”
“Many of my colleagues are beginning to have second thoughts about staying in Afghanistan for any longer period of time,” said Jones, whose district includes the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point.
At the hearing, Democrats were more accepting of the Gates’ proposed budget cuts.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, called the proposal a “good first step in the right direction.”
The Gates’ proposal would reduce the number of soldiers in the Army by 27,000 and trim the Marines by 20,000, saving as much as $6 billion.
Gates also has pledged to trim the department’s bureaucracy by disbanding an entire military headquarters in Norfolk, Va., called U.S. Joint Forces Command, and cutting back on the number of general officers that staff the Pentagon. The sprawling facility has a civilian and military work force approaching 6,000 and a $1 billion budget.
The plan assumes the U.S. will be able to substantially reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan in the next few years. While Obama has called for troop reductions to begin this July, the Afghan government has said it probably won’t be able to take control of its government until the end of 2014.
At the hearing’s end, McKeon said members of the panel were frustrated with a lack of communication from the Pentagon.
“We don’t want to be confrontational,” he said. “But we get the feeling decisions are a fait accompli.” In a rare concession about Congress, the chairman said there are “big egos up here.”
I played highlights of the hearing on today’s show. You can watch the entire hearing in the video player below.