WASHINGTON — For the first time in more than a decade defined by costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon announced plans Thursday to freeze its ballooning budget, forcing the services to shrink the Army and Marines and increase health care premiums for military retirees and their families.
The Pentagon says it can stop asking for annual budget increases in 2015, adjusting its spending only for inflation. The last time the Pentagon's budget went down was in 1998.
The plan is aimed at helping the nation whittle away at its massive deficit. But the proposal, which requires $78 billion in spending cuts and relies on another $100 billion in cost-saving moves to cover urgent requirements, is tied to two assumptions: that the war in Afghanistan will end on time and that Congress will agree to plans to cancel popular job-making programs and charge retired military families more for health care.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that projections about what the world will look like so far in the future have a troubled track record.
But the Defense Department is "not exempt" from belt-tightening just because of its charge to defend the nation, he said.
"Looking five years into the future is through a pretty cloudy crystal ball," Gates said. "Any number of these decisions could be reversed."
Although it took Gates more than 30 minutes to read an explanation of the reductions, he called the proposals modest and realistic.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he thinks the Afghanistan war will shrink as planned in 2014, when the United States and its allies want to hand over control of the country's security to the Afghan government.
"There's certainly some risk there, but we think it's acceptable risk right now," Mullen said.
Almost immediately the proposal ran into opposition in Congress, including Republicans who say President Barack Obama is short-changing the military.
"I'm not happy," said Rep. Buck McKeon, who as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee helps oversee the military budget.
"This is a dramatic shift for a nation at war and a dangerous signal from the commander-in-chief," McKeon, R-Calif., added.
In the meantime, many newly elected Tea Party activists and anti-war Democrats have said the Defense Department isn't doing enough to scale back its mammoth half-trillion dollar annual budgets.
The Defense Department represents the largest portion of the federal government's discretionary budget.
"We have nearly doubled our military budget in the past 10 years," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told his local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, this week.
"To avoid bankruptcy, we will have to evaluate all spending — from food stamps to foreign aid to foreign wars," Paul said.
Gates said his proposal falls between the extremes of those who want to slash the Pentagon budget and those who want to expand it.
"My view is we've got it about right," he said.
The plan calls for $553 billion to be spent in 2012 on annual defense programs such as weapons modernization and troop pay. The amount, which does not include war spending, is $13 billion less than the Pentagon wanted, but still represents 3 percent growth after inflation.
But the rate of increase of spending would gradually slow before halting in 2015 and 2016. The only increase in those budgets would reflect the inflation rate. Gates estimates doing this would cost the military about $78 billion.
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