(Adds background on Afghanistan at end of story.)
Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama’s defense budget would cut the military too deeply and leave the U.S. with a “strategy founded on hope,” the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said.
“Although this strategy is framed as making the military more nimble and flexible, it is not clear how slashing the armed forces by over 100,000 during a time of war, shedding force structure, and postponing modernization makes that so,” Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a hearing of the panel today.
Obama’s $525.4 billion defense request for fiscal 2013 would be $5 billion less than Congress enacted for the current fiscal year and $46 billion less than previously planned. The Republican criticism opened an election-year fight over what the Pentagon has called a new strategy built on a leaner, more agile military.
“One does not mask insufficient resources with a strategy founded on hope,” McKeon said.
Panetta said cuts in troop strength and weapons programs were required as part of a deficit-reduction law passed by Congress last year.
‘Handed a Number’
“We were handed a number for defense reductions,” Panetta said. “We stepped up to the plate. But you can’t balance the budget on the backs of defense, either.”
He said he would do “everything possible” working with Congress to avoid further, automatic cuts of $500 billion over 10 years that the budget law would require unless alternative savings are found.
Republicans portrayed the Obama administration as cutting the military to fund domestic programs.
“We want to reduce the deficit,” said Representative J. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican. “We just don’t want to do it on the backs of our men and women who are fighting for this country every day.”
Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat, said defense spending has doubled over the past 10 years. Even with the proposed cuts, the defense budget will continue to increase each year, though at a slower pace than previously planned, he said.
Citing events such as the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. commandos, Smith said in a written statement, “The budget lays out a strategy that will enable the United States to build on those successes and confront the threats of today as well as in the future.”
Base Closings Opposed
Panetta’s call for two new rounds of military base closings in 2013 and 2015 produced the most complaints from lawmakers in today’s hearing and yesterday’s before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“There’s obviously no wild enthusiasm in the Congress for additional BRAC rounds,” said Representative Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican, referring to the Base Realignment and Closure process, which was last conducted in 2005.
Panetta said the closings would save money in the long term as the size of the military gets smaller. The budget would trim the force by 123,900 troops by 2017.
The defense secretary said he is considering closing 23 military bases in Europe as part of plans to cut troop levels there. The U.S. has closed about 100 bases in Europe in the past six or seven years, he said.
Lockheed, General Dynamics
In response to other questions on the Pentagon budget:
-- Panetta reaffirmed support for all three versions of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program. Panetta lifted probation last month of the Marine’s version.
“We’re talking about spectacular technology that would be part of this plane,” Panetta said. “Countries are all lined up waiting for this plane because they know how good it’s going to be.”
-- Panetta said he was “prepared to look at” funding an additional Virginia-class attack submarine in fiscal 2014 if savings could be found elsewhere in the defense budget.
The new budget plan calls for buying only one submarine in 2014. The budget calls for buying two submarines in 2013 for $3.2 billion. The subs are built jointly by General Dynamics Corp.’s Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. of Newport News, Virginia.
-- General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the Pentagon’s decision to cancel the Block 30 version of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. He has said U-2 spy planes are more cost-effective.
“The Block 30 Global Hawk has fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it,” Dempsey told the House panel.
-- Panetta said the transition to Afghan-led security in Afghanistan is on track to be completed by 2014 as planned.
“So far it is working,” he told the committee. “The Afghan authority is doing a great job.”
Panetta set another marker this month, saying the U.S. would end its primary combat role and shift mostly to advising Afghan forces by the end of 2013.
“I was a bit shocked with your comments,” Representative K. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican.
Panetta said his comments about 2013 “were perfectly in line with commitments under Lisbon,” referring to the 2010 NATO summit that called for a transition to Afghan-led security by 2014.
Referring to U.S. allies, Panetta said, “We’re in together and out together in 2014.”
While Panetta and other Obama appointees have talked of progress in training Afghan national forces, U.S. military and intelligence reports have continued to raise questions about issues of training, loyalty, reliability and corruption among those forces.
Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, the U.S. commander in charge of day-to-day operations for the coalition in Afghanistan led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, offered a more cautious assessment of the allies’ progress against the Taliban in a Feb. 8 interview with Pentagon reporters.
“They have a regenerative capability, particularly with the Pakistan sanctuary,” Scaparrotti said. “So this is a tough fight ahead.”
--With assistance from Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Larry Liebert, Terry Atlas
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