Critics on left hit Pentagon on talk of budget disasters

Left-leaning Pentagon critics are panning congressional testimony by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and his top officers, who warned of catastrophes if the military is forced to cut $1 trillion if congressional budget talks fail.

Some in the left-of-center military reform movement say the Pentagon squandered billions of dollars on overly complex weapons that ended up being canceled. They argue that the services can delay some big procurements because troops are due to leave Iraq this year and wind down military operations in Afghanistan by 2014.

Winslow Wheeler, a former government auditor and congressional aide who now analyzes the defense budget at the Center for Defense Information, said the $1 trillion in cuts would take the Pentagon roughly to a 2007 level of less than $500 billion in fiscal 2013, from a planned $590 billion.

“In its time, it was a peak — not a valley,” Mr. Wheeler said. “That’s a pretty fat defense budget. What they’re yelling and screaming about is not the actual dollar amount. They were not yelling and screaming back in 2007 about being in the middle of catastrophe.

“What they’re really screaming about is that Pentagon can’t survive life as it knows it at a diminished budget because they don’t know how to manage the money and they are unwilling to knock over the rice bowls that that would require.”

To Mr. Wheeler, the “rice bowls” are the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy F-35 fighter, and the Navy’s family of littoral combat ships (LCS). Both weapon systems have sustained enormous cost overruns.

The House Armed Services Committee, led by Republicans determined to fight off any more Pentagon budget slashing, held a series of hearings in recent weeks that focused on what would happen if Congress’ so-called supercommittee failed to reach a deal on deficit reduction, triggering automatic budget cuts. For the Pentagon, the already-agreed-upon reduction of $465 billion would spread to more than $1 trillion over 10 years.

Mr. Panetta told the committee a budget cut that deep would be “truly devastating.”

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, testified that “cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military” and reduce soldiers’ ability to fight overseas.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, raised the prospect of a ruined nuclear private industry because of insufficient orders for submarines or carriers.

“People are beginning to notice that this rhetoric is inappropriate to the amount of money they would be getting,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, called the chiefs’ testimony “nonsense because, even if you did the whole trillion, basically you’d be above in real dollars the Cold War average.”

“It’s not like we’re going back to where we were after World War I or something,” he said. “They’re trying to scare us. But when you tell people you’ll be back to where you were in 2007, they say, ‘Wow.’ “

A House Armed Services Republican staff report in September said sequestration, as automatic cuts are called, would take defense spending to $491 billion instead of the planned $596 in 2013. That is a cut of $105 billion, or 18 percent, in the first year alone.

After that, the Pentagon would face more than $100 billion in annual cuts from projected spending, putting the budget at $589 billion in 2022 instead of $700 billion.

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