A U.S. Air Force MC-12 Liberty prepares to take off from Kandahar Air Field in August, 2010. The Pentagon is requesting more than $300 million to buy more of the slow-flying aircraft, which “have produced valuable battlefield intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

A U.S. Air Force MC-12 Liberty prepares to take off from Kandahar Air Field in August, 2010. The Pentagon is requesting more than $300 million to buy more of the slow-flying aircraft, which “have produced valuable battlefield intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan.” (Eric Harris/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials asked for $42 billion less to fund the wars next year and an increase of less than 1 percent in the military’s base budget for fiscal 2012, holding defense costs down as Congress stresses fiscal restraint.

But before they lobby for that money, military leaders are pleading with lawmakers to pass last year’s budget request, shelved by the last Congress in December after months of political in-fighting. For now, service officials are operating with roughly $22 billion less this fiscal year than they had hoped, under a temporary budget bill that expires next month.

“This department has been operating under a continuing resolution going on five months, resulting in difficulties that may soon turn into a crisis,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at a news conference Monday.

At least $14 billion of that missing fiscal 2011 money is needed to ensure “the level of resources needed to protect this nation’s security and vital interests around the world,” Gates said.

The $553 billion budget plan, up $5 billion from last year’s budget request, is highlighted by billions in spending cuts and “efficiencies” outlined by Gates last month.

That includes ending development of the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and several Army missile programs, cutting contractors and flag officer billets, and consolidating a number of organizations, including Joint Forces Command. But most of those savings will be reinvested in other department priorities, such as a new long-range bomber program for the Air Force and purchase of new Navy ships.

The Pentagon’s base budget has increased by at least $15 billion each of the last five years, and is up more than $126 billion since fiscal 2005. The modest $5 billion increase in this year’s request covers little more than routine increases in personnel and maintenance costs. Some of the sharpest cuts are reserved for military construction and research.

“This budget represents a reasonable, responsible and sustainable level of funding, the minimum level of defense spending that is necessary given the security challenges we are facing around the globe,” Gates said.

The military budget proposal calls for a 1.6 percent pay raise for all servicemembers next January, a 4.2 percent bump in Basic Allowance for Housing and a 3.4 percent boost in Basic Allowance for Subsistence.

The pay raise is slightly above the 1.4 percent increase troops saw this year. President Barack Obama announced a pay freeze on federal workers in December, so civilian defense employees and Department of Veterans Affairs workers will not see a cost of living increase in 2012.

Cuts in the funding for war operations are even more dramatic. The department has asked for $118 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan costs, down more than 26 percent from the nearly $160 billion request last year. Officials said that reflects Pentagon plans to finish the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and “modest declines” for funding of Afghanistan operations.

Gates said the reduction in Afghanistan spending does not correspond to a specific number of troops leaving the country in the next 18 months, since the size and scope of any drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground.

“But that’s not to say that we will have 98,000 troops at the end of FY12,” he said. “In fact, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that we won’t.”

But Pentagon officials portrayed the budget as reasonable and sustainable spending which continues Gates’ efforts to focus the military not just on Iraq and Afghanistan but also on future contingencies: beefing up cybersecurity, building counterterrorism-oriented special operations forces, and maintaining a check down to China’s and Iran’s militaries.

In addition, the department will also ask for 1,000 more small-sized unmanned aerial vehicles than officials purchased last year, and more Predator-class, medium-altitude spying platforms. The Pentagon also wants $500 million to build a new Joint Operations Center for U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade, Md., in addition to increased spending on cyber-related inventions from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But it’s not all high-tech: Gates is requesting more than $300 million to buy more slow-flying MC-12 twin-engine propeller planes. The four-seat planes “have produced valuable battlefield intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And nearly $13 billion of the overseas funding will go toward training and equipping Afghan Security Forces, whom lawmakers and defense officials have deemed the critical piece in American forces’ eventual withdrawal from that country.

Pentagon officials included a controversial premium hike for certain veterans using Tricare, a proposal that has met fierce opposition from veterans groups and Congress for the last decade.

Under the plan, retirees would see a monthly increase of $2.50 for individual plans and $5 for family plans starting next January, and link future increases to medical inflation costs in future years. Prescriptions bought through retail pharmacies will cost another $3, while generic drugs brought through mail order programs will have a $3 reduction in co-pays.

Pentagon officials should quickly get an idea how their modest spending increase will be received on Capitol Hill. Gates will testify about the budget plans on Wednesday before the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee, whose members include a number of new lawmakers elected last fall on platforms that called for deep cuts in government spending.

So far Republican leadership in the House has been reluctant to propose deeper cuts in defense spending than Gates has publicly called for, but conservative lawmakers have said they intend in coming weeks to push for more than $100 billion in cuts already outlined by party leadership.

As details of the budget plans emerged, fiscally conservative think tanks blasted the military spending plans.

“This isn’t a budget cut. It’s just not a reduction in defense spending ,” said Laura Peterson, senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Peterson said while Gates’ request presents a slower rate of growth than planned, it does not match the belt-tightening occurring across the rest of the federal government, proportionally.

“I’m not convinced that even this is going to be sustainable over the long-term,” she said.

Christopher Preble of the libertarian Cato Institute said the budget gives the appearance of reigning in defense spending, but in reality only shifts around money cut from a handful of defense programs to other military buys.

“In the past 12 years, the budget has doubled in real, inflation-adjusted terms,” he said in a statement. “Deeper cuts should be made along with an effort to lessen worldwide defense commitments, reducing the strain on the force.”

Reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this story.

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