Libya strikes complicate Pentagon budget strain

APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY ICE CAMP, Arctic Ocean, March 21 Mon Mar 21, 2011 5:05pm EDT

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APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY ICE CAMP, Arctic Ocean, March 21 (Reuters) - U.S. military operations against Libya will be funded through cash flow, but finding the money will be tough given the lack of a defense budget for the 2011 fiscal year, the Defense Department's top budget official said.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale welcomed passage of a measure extending federal funding through April 8 but said military operations in Libya would add to the strain the department is already feeling because of the failure of lawmakers to approve a budget for the full 2011 fiscal year.

"It'll make it harder to find the money," Hale told Reuters during a visit to a temporary ice camp on the frozen Arctic Ocean, where he was observing submarine military exercises.

Hale said paying for the Libya operations would have been even more complicated if Congress had failed to approve the stopgap spending measure that will keep the federal government running through April 8.

The United States is now fighting in three conflicts -- Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya -- while struggling under a huge budget deficit and national debt. The Pentagon also has plans to cut $78 billion in defense spending over five years.

Since Congress has not passed a defense budget for fiscal 2011, funding continues at 2010 levels, leaving the Pentagon with a shortfall of more than $20 billion and unable to start work on any new weapons programs.

Defense officials say they will increasingly have to raid procurement and operations accounts to make sure they can continue to pay members of the military and civilian employees.

The Pentagon has already said it is delaying 75 weapons programs, including work on a new Virginia-class submarine; putting off scheduled maintenance, and giving military personnel less time to prepare for deployments.

"If we are not able to do those new starts, the impact will be felt," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Reuters in an interview at the ice camp, about 150 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

The camp was set up by the Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory and the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington.

Mabus said the funding problems would not have a direct impact on military operations, but increased strain on personnel, cutbacks in maintenance and routine operations, and higher procurement costs, would eventually affect readiness.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday the United States expects to transfer the lead military role in Libya to other allies in a matter of days.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking as he flew to Russia, said the U.S. will not have a "preeminent role" in the coalition that will maintain a no-fly zone over Libya, and expected to turn over "primary responsibility" for the mission to others within days.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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