Pentagon ponders budget cuts in face of ‘perfect storm’

May reduce personnel and delay new jets, ships, tanks

The Pentagon is considering a range of options to meet a bipartisan call to greatly reduce defense spending in what is a “perfect storm” rocking the military’s once-sturdy budget plans.

The Army is looking at paring down combat brigades and ending some targeting and communications systems. The Navy might delay ship construction and shed sailors.

Also, the purchase of the most expensive weapon system ever, the $380 billion F-35 joint strike fighter, could be pared from a planned 2,443 stealth jets.

“The process inside the [Pentagon] is quite chaotic because there are so many potential outcomes and nobody really knows what level to budget for,” said Loren Thompson, who directs the pro-business think tank Lexington Institute.

The perfect storm emerges in the winding down of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan coinciding with a debt crisis that could force Pentagon cuts of $900 billion over 10 years. These developments mean the military can make do with fewer troops and weapons programs.

The debt-reduction agreement between the White House and Congress calls for $350 billion in national security reductions, most of which will hit the Pentagon.

Then there is what Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has called the “doomsday mechanism”: If a 12-member congressional “supercommittee” fails to agree this fall on additional spending cuts, the federal budget would face automatic reductions. The Pentagon’s share: up to $600 billion in addition to the $350 billion.

The Pentagon had been planning on a $570 billion budget, minus war costs, for fiscal 2013, which begins October 2012.

But Mr. Thompson said the White House budget office wants cuts that could reduce the defense budget to $477 billion. “Looking at the scale of cuts that are currently being contemplated, it is easy to imagine the entire next generation of weapon systems will be wiped out,” he said.

A defense industry executive in Washington said all sorts of ideas are being discussed in the Pentagon to meet both possibilities. These include cuts to the most costly weapon system in U.S. history — the F-35 Lightning stealth fighter, which has been mired in cost overruns.

Mr. Panetta last month endorsed buying the next-generation plane that will replace the Air Force F-16 and A-10, give the Navy a new carrier-based bomber and provide the Marine Corps a successor to the Harrier vertical takeoff and landing jet.

“I think that plane will give us an important capability for the future,” he said. “From everyone I’ve talked to, they seem very pleased that it does in fact provide the capabilities that we need. But it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s still going through the test phase. We’ll learn a lot from the test phase. But I think it’s an investment that we ought to maintain for the future.”

The defense industry executive told The Washington Times that the Navy has talked about canceling the successor to the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine and converting some Virginia-class attack boats into missile carriers.

There is also talk of changing the schedule for inserting a new carrier into the fleet from five years to every seven years, and delaying construction of a new fleet oiler, the TAOX. The source said the Navy is doing all it can to make sure the fleet expands from its current level of 290 ships to its stated goal of at least 313 by the end of the decade.

With troops levels in Iraq dropping fast and with a planned withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the Army is eyeing a cut in the number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), its core fighting unit, according to congressional and defense industry sources.

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