January 27, 2012

Experts Divided on Pentagon's Proposed Cuts

(CNN) -- Some military experts Friday called Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's proposed budget cuts "much ado about nothing," but others expressed concern about the potential of a shrinking U.S. military in the strategic Mideast and Asia.

"The bottom line is that despite all the bells and whistles, this is much ado about nothing," said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under the Reagan administration.

Because of tremendous increases in defense spending the past decade, Panetta's plan to cut $487 billion in the next 10 years merely holds "the baseline defense budget near historic highs," Korb said.

The proposed cuts mean that the Pentagon will spend less than originally planned, but the military "will still spend $2.73 trillion over the next five years, more than the $2.59 trillion spent over the last five years," Korb said in his analysis for the Center for American Progress, where he is a senior fellow.

In a CNN interview, he added: "You're reducing the projected level of defense spending, so it's not a real reduction."

Other analysts expressed serious caution over the planned reductions.

"I wouldn't trivialize this direction," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security.

"Will the United States be the dominant guarantor for the balance of power in the Asia Pacific in the 2020s?" particularly with potential threats from Iran and China, Cronin asked.

"Those countries become symbolic of what could make the United States military vulnerable as time goes along, especially as budget cuts go along," Cronin said. "Others say it's hogwash: the United States is so strong, we're exaggerating the threat."

The proposal can be interpreted as a new budget of "a second Obama administration" as President Barack Obama seeks re-election this year, Cronin said.

"This defense is the beginning of a declining American military presence in which we're going to be heading the way of Britain: We're going to be pulling back east of Suez to becoming a middle power to a minor middle power, in terms of the defense cuts," Cronin said.

"We just don't know the trend lines," he added. "This could be a milestone of where we're going to be heading for the next five years."

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the budget cuts seemed prudent.

"We do have to view the debt and deficit as national security issues and threats themselves, so it does make sense to look for savings," O'Hanlon said.

Whether the reductions go too far, however, is a concern, he added.

"As much as these cuts are reasonable, I'm not sure they established a reasonable fire wall below which further cuts could go," O'Hanlon said. "I think substantially smaller forces would be perilous."

Anthony Cordesman, a military expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned whether the proposed cuts over 10 years is really meaningful in the face of rapid world change.

"While everybody talks about 10 years, if the American economy recovers, if there's a new threat, if technology changes, so does everything in the defense budget," Cordesman said.

Under Panetta's proposal, the defense budget would be reduced by $487 billion over a decade.

The savings would begin in October, the start of fiscal year 2013.

Under the cuts, the Pentagon would become an "agile and flexible military force we need for the future," Panetta said. For example, he said, the Army will save money by pulling two of its four brigades out of permanent bases in Europe to bases in the United States.

But at the same time, the Army will increase rotational deployments to bases so more units will have an opportunity to train with NATO allies. And the Navy will be getting rid of older ships that don't have the latest ballistic missile defense, but buying new ones that will have that capability.

If approved by Congress, the savings next year and the following nine years would be achieved by such measures as trimming the numbers of troops in the Army and Marine Corps and retiring nearly a dozen older Navy ships and six Air Force tactical squadrons, as well as smaller pay raises for troops beginning in 2015.

The Army's cost savings will come from reducing the "end strength," the total number of active duty soldiers. There are currently 556,000 soldiers in the Army, but Panetta would reduce that number to 490,000.

A similar move is being planned for the Marines, which would drop to 182,000 from the current level of 200,000 active-duty Marines. Both the Army's and Marines' end strengths would be slightly higher than they were just prior to 9/11.

Both drops in troop levels will take place over the next five years, Panetta said.

Because there will be fewer soldiers and Marines to support, the Air Force is being asked to reduce its airlift fleet. The budget also calls for a reduction of six tactical air squadrons as well as one training squadron. Panetta insists that such moves will mean "minimal risk to our dominance of the skies."

The Navy has perhaps the most difficult duty. Panetta and President Obama have both repeatedly said the United States remains committed to the Asia-Pacific region, which it now supports largely through the 7th Fleet.

But the budget calls for retiring seven old cruisers and two small amphibious ships. The Navy also will delay buying a dozen new ships by a year or more to save money in the short term.

The portion of the outline that may trigger the most opposition is a plan aimed at troops' salaries and retired troops' health benefits. Panetta promised full pay raises for fiscal 2013 and 2014, but he said, "We will achieve some cost savings by providing more limited pay raises beginning in 2015."

As for health care, he plans no changes for active duty troops and their families, but "we decided that to help control the growth of health care costs, we are recommending increases in health care fees, co-pays and deductibles for retirees," Panetta said.