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Fact Check: Could -- and would -- the U.S. cut the Pentagon budget?

By Matt Smith, CNN
CNN iReporters Egberto Willies and Adriana Maxwell wonder why the U.S. isn't cutting defense spending.
CNN iReporters Egberto Willies and Adriana Maxwell wonder why the U.S. isn't cutting defense spending.

(CNN) -- The Obama administration has called for a freeze on government programs other than defense and entitlements, but why should the Pentagon be excluded?

That's the position of CNN iReporters Egberto Willies and Adriana Maxwell, both of whom see defense spending as a target of opportunity. Willies argues that the U.S. defense budget is several times bigger than that of China, the world's most populous nation, and urges that some of that money be turned to "rebuilding America."

"We're depleting our wealth to build things that are going to be destroyed, while other countries use their wealth to build infrastructure: to build new rails, to build new ports," Willies said.

iReport: Military budget is "wasteful"

Maxwell, meanwhile, points specifically to the Navy's plan to build a new class of aircraft carriers as something that should face the ax. "Last I checked, the USS Enterprise was sound, and no one would dare take her on in conventional battle," she said.

iReport: "Just because it's new doesn't make it better"

Fact Check: So you want to cut the Pentagon budget?

• The United States has the largest military budget in the world. Though the full extent of Chinese military spending is unclear, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated Beijing's 2008 military budget at $84 billion after a decade of rapid growth. A 2009 Pentagon report put the figure much higher, at a range of $105 billion to $150 billion, but still a fraction of the $708 billion the Obama administration has requested for the Defense Department for 2011.

• By comparison, the Pentagon spent just over $300 billion in the 2001 budget year, which ended shortly after the September 11 attacks.

• Since then, the running tab for the wars launched by the United States has hit $944 billion through September, according to the Congressional Research Service. Nearly three-quarters of that has gone to Iraq, with most of the rest for Afghanistan.

• The Obama administration has projected another $139 billion in war spending for the current budget year and has asked Congress for another $159 billion in 2011.

• The base budget for the Defense Department -- everything other than direct war costs -- has nearly doubled since 2001 as well, from $297 billion to $531 billion in 2010. Its personnel costs are budgeted at $154 billion in 2011, and medical costs are projected to be $51 billion, up from $19 billion in 2001. Another $145 billion is budgeted for buying weapons and gear for the active-duty and reserve forces, while $77 billion is budgeted for research and development.

• Regarding the carriers, the Navy is required by an act of Congress to maintain 11 carriers in its fleet. Enterprise, the oldest, joined the fleet in 1961 and is scheduled to be retired in 2012. The next-youngest carrier, the USS Nimitz, went into service in 1975.

• Like other recent programs, such as the F-35 fighter and the San Antonio-class amphibious assault ship, the construction of the new Gerald Ford-class carriers has run into delays and is likely to end up over budget, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Navy expects to spend about $30 billion on three ships, the research service found.

• Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tried to rein in some of the big-ticket contracts, shaking up the management of the F-35 project and demanding that Congress stop spending money on C-17 transport planes and an alternate F-35 engine. But with jobs at stake, Congress has ignored those requests for years and continued to appropriate funds for the C-17 and a second F-35 engine.

Bottom Line: The defense budget would appear ripe for cuts if only for its sheer size. But between the extent of U.S. commitments around the globe, including two wars, and the pull of steady jobs in a recession, cutting the Pentagon budget has proved difficult for even experienced Washington hands.

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