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Obama Seeks Major Cuts in Defense Budget, Still World’s Largest

  • Al Pessin

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, February 14, 2011

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, February 14, 2011

President Barack Obama’s U.S. budget proposal includes $671 billion for the defense department - a cut from the current year, but still by far the largest military budget in the world.

The U.S. military is fighting a war in Afghanistan and has nearly 50,000 troops in Iraq. But the wars are a relatively small and decreasing part of the defense budget. In the fiscal year starting in October, the president wants $118 billion for the two missions - $41 billion less than the current year and well under 20 percent of the total request. The overall proposed defense budget is five percent smaller than the current year, and more than 10 percent less than Pentagon officials had wanted for this year.

Big budget categories include salaries and benefits for America’s 2.3 million men and women in uniform, money to care for the wounded and funding for expensive, high-technology equipment. Key planned purchases include more unmanned aircraft for surveillance and attack, more and better helicopters for missions ranging from counterterrorism to disaster relief and a new long-range bomber. The Pentagon also plans to spend $25 billion dollars for navy shipbuilding and $1.3 billion to improve the U.S. military’s cyber security.

There is also money for priority programs like missile defense in the Pacific and Europe, a new submarine for launching ballistic missiles and the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon also wants to spend $12 billion for research that officials say will sustain the U.S. military's "technological superiority.” Funds will also be set aside to help foreign militaries fight terrorism, to continue to build the new Afghan security forces and to finish the transition in Iraq to local security responsibility.

Presenting the figures on Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the proposed budget it in the context of a two-year-old effort to improve the department’s efficiency, while modernizing the force and preparing it to fight and win conflicts ranging from today’s counterinsurgencies to potential future, high-technology conventional and cyber wars.

"In all these budget requests, if enacted by Congress, we’ll continue our efforts to reform the way the department does business, fund modernization programs needed to prepare for future conflicts, reaffirm and strengthen the nation’s commitment to care for the all-volunteer force, including training and support, and ensure that our troops and commanders on the front lines have the resources and support they need to accomplish their mission," said Secretary Gates.

The defense budget includes the cancellation or reduction of several programs Gates says are unnecessary or over-priced. Among the programs being cut are a new amphibious vehicle for the Marine Corps and a surface-to-air missile the Army wanted. And Gates pledged to end the program to develop an alternate engine for the new U.S. fighter jet, which some members of Congress support.

Anticipating that the mood in Congress to cut spending will continue in order to reduce the huge U.S. government budget deficit, defense department planners project a further cut of $50 billion in 2013, and only modest growth after that to keep up with expected inflation.

But at Monday’s briefing, Secretary Gates was highly critical of some members of Congress who want to make immediate and sharp cuts in defense spending, including reductions that would take affect during the current fiscal year, which is nearly half over.

“I’m concerned that the debate over the defense budget in recent days and weeks is becoming increasingly distant from strategic and operational reality, distant, in other words, from the real world," he said.

Gates said his department faces a “crisis” if it is forced to operate on $23 billion less this year, as some in Congress want. He said a $9 billion cut would be acceptable, but not more.