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Q&A: The Department of Defense and the debt deal

WASHINGTON — So how bad, from the Pentagon’s perspective, are the budget cuts really going to be?

Depending on whom you ask, the debt deal passed by Congress this week was either full-frontal financial assault on the Defense Department or an overdue fiscal check-up for the military. As with many political debates, it comes down to how you look at the numbers.

With that in mind, here are answers to some of the most common defense-related questions emerging from the new debt reduction plan:

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How much funding will the military lose?

The deal includes two separate cost cutting steps, each of which will have an effect on the Defense Department’s long-term spending.

First, the measure calls for a $350 billion cut in defense spending over the next decade. That’s the only guaranteed defense cut in the deal. But Pentagon budget crunchers note that some of that money may come from other agencies — Department of Homeland Security, for example — so the actual cost to the military is unknown.

But the plan also calls for a bipartisan committee of lawmakers to suggest at least $1.2 trillion more in federal spending reductions, with their work due back in late November. Those ideas could include further defense cuts, though exactly how much is still unknown.

If Congress doesn’t adopt those suggestions, the measure forces between $500 billion and $600 billion in additional defense cuts (the exact number depends on another debt ceiling increase) along with equal spending reductions in non-defense programs.

Neither the president nor lawmakers say they’re in favor of defense cuts that steep, but the provision was included to force the spending committee to come up with credible, adoptable ideas on ways to achieve future savings.

Is this a win or a loss for the military?

The White House had already announced plans to cut $400 billion in military spending over the next 12 years, so the $350 billion guaranteed cut actually leaves the Pentagon with little more money than officials had been planning for.

But Pentagon leaders have warned that steeper cuts could be crippling to the force. Conservatives in Congress have already blasted the White House for proposing defense cuts based on budget figures instead of national security needs.

White House officials have repeated that any defense cuts will be made with force readiness and capabilities in mind, but that all of government spending must be carefully scrutinized to help balance the federal budget.

Bottom line: In the best-case scenario, Pentagon officials could be looking at less than $350 billion of spending cuts over the next 10 years, a figure they’ve said they can live with. Worst case, they’ll face nearly $1 trillion in reductions, a figure they said could cripple the force.

How much will the military lose next year?

Lawmakers still haven’t detailed exactly what the impact will be on the military in fiscal 2012, but the entire package only calls for $22 billion in cuts next year across all of government. Not all of that will come from defense spending.

However, Congress still hasn’t approved the fiscal 2012 budget. Defense officials have requested more than $670 billion, with $553 billion of that in the base budget (the rest goes for the wars overseas).

Earlier this year, Pentagon officials told Congress than even a 2 percent cut in their budget request risked disrupting equipment purchase schedules and construction projects.

House officials have already backed a base defense budget of around $570 billion, but will likely have to reduce that number if they hope to start accumulating defense savings.

What kind of changes will those funding cuts mean?

No one is sure. Over the last year, Pentagon planners have already outlined about $78 billion in reduced spending by 2016, which includes reducing the Army’s and Marine Corps’ combined end strength by nearly 70,000 servicemembers.

But the new $350 billion in security cuts will come over and above those savings.

Before he left the Pentagon in June, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said cutting $400 billion from defense spending over the next 12 years would include a full-scale re-examination of military pay, retirement benefits, Tricare fees, weapons acquisition and even the fundamental two-war philosophy of the military.

White House officials said veterans programs and military pay would be protected from across-the-board cuts to defense spending, but the items still could be a target of the Congressional spending committee.

Will this affect paying for the war in Afghanistan?

No. The Congressional Budget Office has said none of the cost-cutting targets include supplemental funding for the wars overseas, and lawmakers have consistently promised that budget-cutting measures would not hurt supply lines to troops in Afghanistan.

Savings associated with the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan over the next three years have already been accounted for, and will not count towards the new debt reduction goals.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @LeoShane
 

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