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.
The military is now spending about $550 billion in what is called the base budget, not counting war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Analysts say that by 2022 the military would be at 2007 levels, plus inflation.
Gen. Odierno told the House committee that sequestration would mean the Army would have to cancel virtually all of its weapons now in research and development.
Two of the Army's most coveted systems are the $25 billion Ground Combat Vehicle to replace the Bradley fighting vehicle and the $54 billion Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to replace the Humvee.
Mr. Korb argued that the Army does not need those systems right now because wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan are not in the foreseeable future. The Army can upgrade the Bradleys, Stryker troop-carriers and Humvees at a much lower cost, he said.
"The Army's problem with modernization is they screwed it up so badly," he said. "With all the stuff they started and had to cancel, I think the Army basically can fix the Bradley and Strykers and Abrams tanks. They'll do fine for a while."
The Army abandoned the Future Combat System, a collection of air- and ground-weapon systems, because of costs and delays.
Todd Harrison of the centrist Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments wrote in a "backgrounder" that sequestration cuts less deeply historically than other drawdowns.
"Under sequestration, the base defense budget would fall 14 percent in real terms from the peak in FY 2010 to FY 2013," Mr. Harrison said.
"This seems modest compared to the drawdown at the end of the Cold War when the base budget fell by 34 percent from the peak in FY 1985 to the trough in FY 1998."
The top brass argues that Washington got it wrong in the 1990s, just as it did after World War II and Vietnam. It cut defense by about 35 percent by the year 2000, creating combat readiness problems that required an infusion of cash to fix after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I think that it's very important to look at the history of how we've done," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, told the committee last month.
"We're repeating a cycle here that is something that has happened many, many times in our history."
Mr. Harrison said the Pentagon "sunk" $50 billion the past decade into developing big systems that later were canceled. Analysts say it now faces the reality of needing to buy new aircraft and ships with significantly less money.
"While the military did procure a significant quantity of equipment during the buildup and modernized parts of the force structure, it did not procure everything that was planned," Mr. Harrison wrote.
"Several major systems still need to be modernized over the coming decade. The challenge for DOD is adjusting those modernization plans to match the changing threat and fiscal environments to field the right mix of forces and capabilities for the future."
Mr. Wheeler said he has one answer: Cancel the $380 billion F-35, the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history, and focus on buying a less-complex fighter to replace the F-16.
"It's unaffordable, and it's a dog," he said. "Why buy an ultraexpensive, unsuccessful design. We should proceed with a properly conceived replacement program for these aging antique airplanes we're flying."
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