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Amidst talks of budget cuts, Pentagon pushing for more money

From Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Congress can pass a formal Defense budget or just go with last year's numbers
  • The Defense Department wants an appropriation of $549 billion
  • But the current funding level is $526 billion
  • Defense experts disagree on the impact of forcing cuts now

Washington (CNN) -- There are only three miles and the Potomac River separating the Pentagon from the U.S. Capital. But lately the distance can be measured as $23 billion.

That's the amount of Department of Defense spending that is caught in the budget dispute over whether Congress will pass a formal Defense budget for 2011 or limp along with last year's numbers.

The stare-down between the Pentagon and Congress has prompted a fresh wave of gloom-and-doom predictions.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently warned that the military will not be able to meet its responsibilities if Congress sticks with the funding level of $526 billion, which is in the current continuing resolution, instead of the full defense appropriation of $549 billion. A continuing resolution is like being on auto-pilot, with the same numbers and same programs as the previous year.

Those kinds of reductions "hollow out" a military, according to Gates, who said the continuing resolution is "the worst of all possible kinds of reductions."

Funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is handled separately, unaffected by this political and spending drama. But Gates warns that vital training and readiness will be degraded.

"Operating at significantly reduced funding levels under a continuing full-year resolution would cause this department severe problems, likely requiring us to curtail critical activities needed to support our troops and carry out our national security mission," Gates said.

Defense analyst Winslow Wheeler, rejects the extreme warnings of Gates and other Pentagon leaders.

"If they can't find billions and billions of dollars of stupid and wasteful spending, then they should be replaced," Wheeler said. He spent 30 years working for the Senate and General Accounting Office before joining the Center for Defense Information. "It is beyond redemption to suggest there are not sensible ways to reduce the largest defense budget we've had since the end of World War II."

Meanwhile it's hard to actually pin down what the defense budget might be, with the present continuing resolution expiring next months and with behind-the-scenes talks continuing on Capitol Hill. There is talk of a compromise, what insiders call "an asterisk or bump-up" to the continuing resolution that would split the difference between last year's numbers and what the administration wants.

Defense experts differ strongly on the impact of forcing cuts now. Mackenzie Eaglen, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says reducing spending now will actually increase expenses to the taxpayers later, as deferred projects become more expensive. For instance the Navy is now deferring one Virginia-class attack submarine. Building it in the future will cost more.

"It's a ripple effect" said Eaglen. "Congress will need more spending, much more, for defense as a result, if all the plans and programs are upended."

The military services have mounted their own public relations campaigns. The Navy is saying that sticking to last year's budget will delay or shelve a laundry list of programs, from that new submarine and a destroyer to 89 construction projects. And that translates, according to the Navy, into the loss of more than 9,000 civilian jobs. And the Navy is careful to point out to members of Congress that those construction projects alone are in 13 different states.

Also the Navy says it will be forced to drastically cut the amount of notification time for its personnel, and their families, to transfer to new postings, from the present six months down to only two. Civilian job cuts and disruption of the lives of the personnel and families all become bargaining chips in the political dispute over the budget.

"Congress as a general rule wants to cut spending but everyone also wants to support the troops," said Eaglen.

The Army would take the biggest hit, according to budget experts in the Pentagon, looking at how to make do with $13 billion less, if the continuing resolution remains in force.

That could slow down or stop completely assembly lines for some of the Army's basic war-fighting tools, according to Army budget experts. That could mean delay of the Ground Combat Vehicle, touted by the army as the key part of its long-term modernization. It's designed to survive mines, improvised explosive devices and other threats. Other projects that could suffer, according to the Army, are the refurbishing of Humvees coming off the battle-fields of Iraq and Afghanistan, construction of four new CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

The Air Force had planned to order an additional 48 models of its unmanned aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper, the workhorse of air support and surveillance in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border. But under the continuing resolution, the service will only be able to buy 24.

The Air Force also will delay modernization of its F-15 fighters and halt 20 construction projects. One Defense Department official, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the budget deliberations, said the Air Force and other branches had only very limited flexibility to move money around and no ability to launch new projects.

The Marines Corps is waiting until next week to spell out its plans -- both for budgets for this year and next.

As if the wrangling over this year's spending isn't complicated enough, the budget for 2012 is coming out on Monday. Under normal operations each budget is constructed on the preceding year. But one insider says the process now "is like building on jello -- not a firm footing to consider the future."

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan says operating under the continuing resolution brings lots of complications that get harder as the year progresses.

"The impacts only get worse," Lapan said. "The longer it lasts means we lose the ability to shift things around. It is having impact now and it will only worsen as time goes on if we remain under a (continuing resolution)."