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WASHINGTON — Defense officials will slash $78 billion in program spending and begin cutting up to 70,000 soldiers and Marines as federal budget officials tighten the purse strings on military spending.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said none of the end strength cuts are immediate, but in the next five years, officials will begin trimming about 49,000 soldiers from the Army and up to 20,000 Marines from the Corps. He could not say how long the process may take, but it is expected to save about $6 billion and help close an anticipated $24 billion hole in defense spending.

“Ever since taking this post, now four years ago, I’ve called for protecting force structure and maintaining modest but real growth in the defense top line over the long term,” Gates said in a Pentagon press conference Thursday. “But this country’s dire fiscal situation and the threat it poses to American influence and credibility around the world will only get worse unless the U.S. government gets its finances in order.”

The program cuts include pet projects from each of the four services, including the Marines’ much-maligned Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The EFV designed to ferry troops from ship to shore and is considered one of the top long-term priorities of the Corps, but the $13 billion price tag and questionable need for such beach landings made it a budget target.

Gates said he knew the decision to kill the EFV program would be controversial, but allowing development to continue “would essentially swallow the entire Marine vehicle budget” for coming years. Instead, money will be set aside for a new assault vehicle for the service.

The moves are part of a broader effort outlined by Gates over the last year to streamline defense spending, moving funds from overpriced and controversial weapons systems to military modernization and personnel programs.

“My hope is what had been a culture of endless money,” Gates said, “will become a culture of savings and restraint.”

The announcement came just a day after fiscally conservative Republicans took over power in the House, promising to rein in wasteful government spending and jump-start the sluggish American economy.

Most of the end-strength reductions won’t begin until 2015, after Afghan forces are expected to take over the lead in combat operations there. But the Army could see its numbers drop by about 22,000 before then, as service officials draw personnel back down from a temporary increase approved by lawmakers to avoid stop-loss issues.

Gates called the personnel cuts an unwanted but necessary last step to meet long-term budget projections, which show annual increases in the military budget for the next three years but flat spending starting in fiscal 2014. He also said the moves would not jeopardize the military’s capabilities or national security, but will create a $24 billion spending gap.

He also targeted “excess force structure in Europe,” although he predicted major changes there would be implemented after 2015 and after discussions with European allies.

But he did say that four-star service component headquarters for the Army, Navy and Air Force in European Command are no longer needed. As a result, those commands will be reduced to the three star-level “with concurrent streamlining in the headquarters and personal staff.”

In addition, Gates said Air Force officials will consolidate two air operations centers in the U.S. and two in Europe, but did not immediately specify those locations.

Gates emphasized that while about $54 billion in savings found through Defense Department changes will help pay for the coming years’ budget shortfall, another $100 billion in savings generated by the services will remain in their accounts.

For example, the Air Force will be able to use portions of the $34 billion in savings it generated to develop a new long-range nuclear bomber, and improve radar technology on its F-15 fleet, among other projects.

The Army will reinvest its $24 billion in savings into more unmanned drones for surveillance, new tactical communications gear, and improved suicide prevention programs. The Navy will purchase one new littoral combat ship and several combat logistics ships, and the Marine Corps will repair equipment returning from overseas combat, with the $35 billion in savings they created.

Next month, President Barack Obama is expected to unveil plans for more than $553 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2012, a small increase from the $548 billion budget proposed by the White House for this fiscal year — but never approved by Congress.

But Pentagon officials are bracing for flat defense budgets at the end of their five-year projections, with no annual increase and more difficult spending decisions to come.

The budget projections do not include the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are funded separately from the Pentagon’s base budget. Neither Pentagon officials nor conservative lawmakers have voiced support for trimming those accounts while troops are fighting overseas.

Reaction to the cuts from defense-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill was swift and critical.

“I’m not happy,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “We went into today’s meeting trying to ensure the $100 billion in targeted savings were reinvested back into our national security priorities. We didn’t expect to hear that … the White House and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) have demanded that the Pentagon cut an additional $78 billion from defense over the next five years.”

McKeon said he’s supportive of Gates’ call for fiscal responsibility and accountability, “but I will not stand idly by and watch the White House gut defense when Americans are deployed in harm’s way.”

Gates said he expects to testify before the House and Senate about the cuts later this month.

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