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WASHINGTON — Ongoing combat operations overseas could cost the United States more than $860 billion over the next 10 years, further ballooning the defense budget, experts told Congress on Wednesday.

That total includes plans to dramatically draw down the number of troops in Iraq in the next few years, according to officials from the Congressional Budget Office.

Even with reducing the number of deployed combat troops to 75,000 worldwide, the CBO estimates that the Defense Department faces recurring personnel costs of at least $69 billion a year, coupled with other equipment repair costs.

Lawmakers on the House Budget Committee said those estimates will only increase the pressure on budget planners to make difficult choices in how to properly fund the department.

"Let there be no mistake: We’ll spend whatever we need to make sure our national security needs are met," said committee Chairman John Spratt Jr., D-S.C. "But now more than ever, with the budget that we have, we must make sure that we so do in a fiscally sound manner."

The Pentagon has spent $864 billion on combat operations since 2001, with more than three-fourths of that going into Iraq. Supplemental war costs for fiscal 2007 and 2008 alone topped more than $350 billion.

J. Michael Gilmore, assistant director for the CBO, said that helped push fiscal 2008 defense spending to nearly $800 billion, its highest levels since the end of World War II when adjusted for inflation.

To keep up with long-term defense goals, he said, the department may need to consider scaling back or dropping major weapons systems in order to balance capabilities with affordability.

In addition, the budget office found $18 billion in savings for fiscal 2010 with personnel cuts such as a reduction in Army combat brigades ($7.7 billion), a drop in Marine Corps end-strength ($2.3 billion) and an increase in enrollment fees for Tricare ($2.1 billion), although officials said they were not necessarily recommending any such moves.

Ranking committee member Paul Ryan, R-Wis., noted that the Defense Department remains on the Government Accountability Office’s list of "high risk" agencies because of continued concerns about wasteful or negligent spending.

Fixing those problems, he said, is crucial to solving the funding issues.

"While we must ensure our troops are fully funded, we cannot simply throw money at the Pentagon without the proper oversight or accountability," he said.

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