The Pentagon on Thursday announced a series of sharp cuts in defense spending over the next five years that senior leaders say will improve efficiencies but leave reduced numbers of Marines, soldiers and key defense systems.
The cuts will pare the Army and Marine Corps by as many as 47,000 people, reversing a trend since the Sept. 11 attacks of increased budgets and more recruitment. The new cuts also will eliminate defense systems such as the Surface-Launched Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, an armored boat designed to move Marines ashore rapidly.
The new series of spending cuts will reduce the Pentagon’s budget by $78 billion over the next five years, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in announcing the reductions at the Pentagon. He also proposed raising the health insurance premiums of military retirees who still receive military health insurance. The premiums have not been raised since 1995.
“This plan represents, in my view, the minimum level of defense spending that is necessary, given the complex and unpredictable array of security challenges the United States faces around the globe — global terrorist networks, rising military powers, nuclear-armed rogue states and much, much more,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Gates said some money saved through more efficient spending will be reinvested into programs that reflect the military’s new emphasis on counterinsurgency instead of preparing for war between nation-states.
The defense secretary also said the cuts he is proposing are part of a review of unnecessary and wasteful Pentagon programs launched last year. The review followed an earlier round of cuts that capped procurement of the F-22 fighter program at 187 jets.
“It is imperative for this department to eliminate wasteful, excessive and unneeded spending, to do everything we can to make every defense dollar count,” Mr. Gates said.
The cuts are expected to hit the Marines hardest. The Marine Corps is expected to reduce its numbers by around 20,000 from the current level of 200,000 in the next five years, and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), under development since the Reagan administration, will be shelved.
Mr. Gates also said an aircraft being built for the Marines that would require shorter runways was put on “probation” because the plane faced development problems.
Mr. Gates acknowledged that his decision to cut the EFV will be controversial, but he said the cost to build the vehicle would be $12 billion, a figure that equaled the entire Marine Corps vehicle budget.
“This decision does not call into question the Marines’ amphibious assault mission,” Mr. Gates said. “We will budget the funds necessary to develop a more affordable and sustainable amphibious tractor to provide the Marines a ship-to-shore capability into the future.”
Thomas Donnelly, a defense affairs analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, disagreed with Mr. Gates.
“This really calls into question the future of the Marine Corps, whether the Marine Corps can function as it has since World War II as a kick-down-the-door force,” he said. “The combined effect of the Marine Corps program cuts, weapons cuts and personnel cuts is to raise the question about whether the Marine Corps can continue this role.”
The proposed cuts in defense must be approved by Congress. In the House, the new Republican leadership has pledged to try to cut $100 billion from the federal budget for 2012. If Mr. Gates‘ proposed cuts are enacted, they could achieve $20 billion in savings.
But already the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, has expressed concern.
“I’m not happy,” Mr. McKeon said in statement after a meeting with Mr. Gates. “We went into today’s meeting trying to ensure the $100 billion in targeted savings were reinvested back into our national security priorities. We didn’t expect to hear that before these efficiencies can be realized, the White House and [Office of Management and Budget] have demanded that the Pentagon cut an additional $78 billion from defense over the next five years.”
Another possible roadblock for Mr. Gates on the defense budget will be the Virginia congressional delegation. The new cuts would end most Navy missions for the service’s Second Fleet, based in Norfolk, Va.
Will Jenkins, a spokesman for Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, said: “Sen. Webb holds strong views regarding our national security needs and the vital role Virginia plays in our nation’s defense. He intends to carefully review all the data and cost-savings analysis regarding the latest efficiency initiatives when that information is provided by the Department of Defense.”
Likely winners in the defense budget include new funding for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, such as communications and drones. Mr. Gates also said the Pentagon would invest in modernizing the radar systems for the F-18 Hornet aircraft for the Navy.
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