Pentagon budget set to shrink next year

The Pentagon budget will shrink slightly next year for the first time since 1998, the Obama administration said Thurs­day, in an attempt to chip away at the federal deficit while reorienting the armed forces toward Asia.

Under the proposal, the administration will reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps, trim the number of fighter aircraft and ships, and seek congressional approval for another round of military base closures.The administration will instead spend more on unmanned vehicles and Special Operations forces that can be deployed quickly and will not require large, expensive bases. The military will also largely preserve its manpower and weapons systems geared toward the Middle East.

The Pentagon said it would ask Congress for $525 billion in 2013, which represents a 1 percent decrease from the current year. While the difference may sound small, it represents a new era of austerity for the Defense Department that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when the military was still accustomed to huge annual raises after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.Pentagon leaders characterized the cuts in solemn tones. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called them a “difficult undertaking.” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added: “Make no mistake, the trade-offs were tough. The choices were complex.”

The changes are part of a broader effort by the Pentagon to decrease its projected spending by $487 billion over the next decade in accordance with a deficit-reduction deal President Obama reached with Congress in August.Those cuts could soon swell substantially. If Obama and Congress cannot agree on another package of spending reductions or tax increases by next January, the Pentagon could be forced to slash an extra $600 billion over 10 years. “It basically takes a chain saw to the budget,” said Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Many analysts say that the chances of that happening are small, and that Obama and Congress are likely to work out a compromise ahead of time. But even if they do, many believe the Pentagon is in for more pain as lawmakers search for a long-term solution to the nation’s fiscal troubles.“In terms of the overall federal budget, these changes are a rounding error,” Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said of Obama’s Pentagon budget for next year.

Donnelly said the Pentagon’s fiscal future will depend on the outcome of the presidential election in November.“Either it will get worse for the Department of Defense if Obama gets reelected or Newt Gingrich gets elected, or it will get better for the Pentagon if Mitt Romney gets elected.”Aside from the cuts to the Army, which will eventually reduce the number of active-duty soldiers to 490,000 from 547,000, most of the reductions revealed Thursday had been previously announced or involved less costly items. Panetta noted that the Army and the Marine Corps will still be slightly larger than they were in 2001, before the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent war in Iraq. – WP