For the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon is feeling pressure from the White House to rein in rapidly rising spending and, with its budget reaching record levels, it is now looking to cut billions of dollars in manpower and equipment.
Pentagon officials are in the midst of working out the final details of US$32 billion in cuts that are to begin with the 2007 budget. They are also meeting with military contractors and members of Congress to prepare them for a slowdown in the double-digit growth of Pentagon spending.
Pressure for the cuts comes from the Bush administration's growing awareness that the nation cannot afford to pay for new weapons systems costing hundreds of billions of dollars, fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cover major domestic demands -- whether rebuilding Gulf Coast areas damaged by Katrina, financing the new Medicare prescription benefit or reducing the federal budget deficit.
At the Pentagon, planners are facing hard choices between the levels of manpower they want to sustain and the types of weapon systems they want to have. While there have been periodic attempts recently to hold the line on some costly weapons, this is the first serious threat to the next-generation weapons military contractors have been developing for years.
This would be the first reversal in the Pentagon budget since 2001, when a steady climb brought it to levels not seen since the Reagan era. Military spending for the current year, not including the supplemental appropriations to cover the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, has reached US$444 billion, a growth of 41 percent since 2001, according to the Pentagon.
On top of that, Congress' supplemental appropriations are now running at US$50 billion to US$80 billion, bringing total military outlays to around US$500 billion a year. Even without these supplemental funds, Pentagon spending accounts for about 18 percent of all federal spending, the largest of any agency.
"We have unsustainable defense spending," said Senator John McCain, a Republican whose subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding hearings on Pentagon weapons-buying practices.
"We cannot sustain the number of weapons programs" now in development, he said.
In a report prepared at the request of McCain, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said last month that "costly conditions" at the Pentagon "are running head-on into the nation's unsustainable fiscal path." The report also warned that "persistent practices show a decided lack of restraint" at the Pentagon, which is facing "a cascading number of problems" because of budget pressures.
The US$32 billion in Pentagon cuts would begin with a US$10 billion reduction in 2007.