WASHINGTON – The Pentagon released a budget blueprint Thursday that cuts projected military spending by nearly half a trillion dollars, yet still calls for increasing the base defense budget in all but one of the next five years.
The proposal meets both goals because spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is dropping sharply, allowing the base budget – the annual cost of paying troops and buying planes, ships and tanks – to increase modestly, even while complying with last year’s bipartisan deal in Congress to reduce the deficit.
For President Barack Obama, the apparent paradox of being able to cut and raise defense spending at the same time is potentially a political boon in his re-election bid.
To Democrats who believe the Pentagon is bloated and should do more to help reduce the national deficit, he can say that his budget would do so. To Republicans who say defense cuts will leave the country vulnerable, he can say he is spending more every year except in 2013 – and holding the line against further reductions.
Others are likely to seize on how the proposed cuts will affect jobs at bases and defense plants across the country.
“Make no mistake, the savings that we are proposing will impact all 50 states and many districts, congressional districts across America,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference.
Panetta acknowledged that so-called spending cuts are only reductions in projected growth, not actual cuts in current spending. Nonetheless, he called the budget plan “tough” and “real” and said “it’s something that obviously will cause some pain.”
The $525 billion sought in fiscal year 2013 is $6 billion less than Congress approved for 2012.
But over the next four years, the Pentagon budget would rise each year, reaching $567 billion by 2017. In inflated adjusted dollars, spending is essentially flat, Pentagon projections show.
War spending, which is funded separately by Congress, would fall from $115 billion this year to $88 billion in 2013 and presumably even further in subsequent years as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, though no estimates were provided.
The Pentagon blueprint would cancel several weapons programs, slow purchases of aircraft and submarines, reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps, shrink the number of Army combat brigades and Air Force squadrons, and move some forces now deployed overseas back to the United States.
The plan is meant to shift spending away from the heavy commitment of troops and equipment needed to fight the wars of the last decade, and to instead beef up the Navy and other assets to help counter Iran, China and North Korea.
The plan envisions buying more unmanned drones, preserving special operations units built up over the last decade, and maintaining a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, so the U.S. can project power overseas even while cutting back on conventional ground forces.
Congress has final say on both the size and the spending priorities of the defense budget.