U.S. urged to cut military edge to help plug deficit

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 18, 2010 3:36pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should trim its lopsided military edge over the rest of the world as part of its efforts to cut its deficit, a nonpartisan group of national security policy experts said as the roughly $550 billion core defense budget comes under scrutiny.

In a letter Thursday to the co-chairmen of a presidential debt-reduction commission, the 46-member group faulted President Barack Obama for sparing the Defense Department from any overall budget cuts.

"We can safely save by trimming our current margin of superiority," the experts wrote to former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles.

The chairmen are supposed to make recommendations on debt reduction by December 1.

The letter's writers included former assistant secretaries of defense and commerce, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office National Security Division and a former head of the National Security and International Affairs section of the White House Office of Management and the Budget. Twenty-two are members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"U.S. combat power dramatically exceeds that of any plausible combination of conventional adversaries," their letter said, describing the permanent U.S. military peacetime presence abroad as a largely outmoded Cold War holdover.

The United States spends roughly eight times more on its military than Russia or China, according to The Military Balance 2010, an almanac compiled by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the U.S. defense budget has grown from $432 billion in fiscal 2001 to a projected $720 billion in fiscal 2011, a jump of about 67 percent. Big beneficiaries include top Pentagon suppliers such as Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman Corp, BAE Systems Plc and Raytheon Co.

The letter was co-sponsored by the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and the Project on Defense Alternatives, which promotes consideration of a range of national security options.

Under current U.S. planning assumptions, the Defense Department's core budget would grow by 10 percent in real terms over the next decade. Obama's fiscal 2011 spending plan seeks $548.9 billion for the Pentagon's regular, non-war operations, up 1.8 percent in purchasing power from the amount appropriated in fiscal 2010.

The letter marked the third big sally in the past week by proponents of significant Defense Department cuts in budget-balancing efforts.

Simpson and Bowles in a draft proposal released last week called for cutting 15 percent of the Pentagon's arms purchases, 10 percent of its research and development funds and scrapping or slashing several big-ticket programs, including Lockheed Martin's multinational F-35 fighter aircraft, the Pentagon's priciest purchase. The pair said such moves could add up to $200 billion in savings over spending now projected by the Pentagon in 2015.

On Wednesday, a Bipartisan Policy Center task force led by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici and former White House Budget Director and Federal Reserve Vice Chair Alice Rivlin urged a five-year freeze on national defense spending at its fiscal 2011 level, followed by growth for the next four years at the same rate as the overall economy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that the Simpson-Bowles approach was "essentially math not strategy."

"If you cut the defense budget by 10 percent, which would be catastrophic in terms of force structure, that's $55 billion on a $1.4 billion deficit. We are not the problem," he told a Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in Washington.

Pentagon spending constitutes about 55 percent of U.S. non-mandated, discretionary spending and about 23 percent of the federal budget, according to the experts' letter.

The Domenici-Rivlin panel suggested scrapping outright among other programs the radar-evading F-35. At a potential $382 billion cost for 2,443 fighters, the F-35 is due to be the backbone of U.S. tactical aviation for coming decades.

(Reporting by Jim Wolf. Editing by Robert MacMillan)

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