WASHINGTON — Cuts to defense spending in the debt reduction bill could total nearly $1 trillion over 10 years — more than double what President Obama had proposed earlier this year — and sap American military might worldwide, say analysts and members of Congress.
Budget cutters may have to consider slashing costly defense systems like the U.S. military’s replacement fighter jet or increase health-care premiums for working-age military retirees to comply with a debt reduction deal that may cut as much as $900 billion from the U.S. military over 10 years.
“They could do this responsibly,” said Todd Harrison, a budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The reality is that it will be very difficult.”
Thomas Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Pentagon cuts won’t require “long knives so much as chain saws.”
Harrison estimates the reductions in defense spending could rise to $900 billion over 10 years.
The proposed cuts would force critical weapons systems to be trimmed or eliminated along with reductions in military personnel and training while at war, Donnelly said.
“The question will be what do we do when we get a shock to our system like 9/11?” Donnelly said. “The fact is we haven’t turned down wars, not even President Obama.”
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has argued that there is “excessive” military spending that can be eliminated in part by scaling back U.S. commitments overseas. But even Obama’s choice for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, told the Senate last week that $800 billion in defense cuts “would be extraordinarily difficult and very high risk,” prompting some on Capitol Hill to withhold support for the debt-ceiling deal.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of a House Armed Services Committee on military readiness, voted against the bill and described the cuts to the military services as “staggering.” He said the deal would require the Army and Marine Corps to shed needed troops “in a world that’s not getting any safer.”
Among the areas likely to attract budget cutters attention:
• Retirees pay $230 a person or $460 a family each year, along with small co-payments for various types of care. The fees have not gone up since 1995.
• The Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, is to replace an aging fleet of Harrier jets and protect troops in infantry assaults. The cost: $385 billion for 2,457 jets.
• The size of the ground forces. Army has about 550,000 soldiers, up about 40,000 since 2006. There are about 200,000 Marines, up from 175,000. The Pentagon already has planned to cut 27,000 soldiers and 20,000 Marines by 2015 to save about $6 billion in 2015 and 2016.
If the cuts are targeted, Harrison said, the Pentagon could be forced to make tough choices but still maintain a potent force.
“This will really forces (the military) to rethink its strategy,” Harrison said. “That’s not always a bad thing.”
Last week, in a Congressional hearing on military readiness, the No. 2 officers of the armed services said the services could absorb $400 billion in cuts that President Obama had proposed prior to the debt deal cuts. Anything more would be a problem.
“If they would exceed $400 billion, we would start to have to make some fundamental changes in the capability of the Marine Corps,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant.