By Dan De Luce
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon laid out a budget plan Wednesday that holds military spending steady next year without taking into account the cost of the war in Afghanistan or rolling automatic budget cuts.
President Barack Obama’s request of $526.6 billion for the Defense Department keeps the base budget at about the same level as in 2013, avoiding dramatic cuts to weapons or benefits.
But the proposal leaves out the cost of the war in Afghanistan, projected to surpass $80 billion in the current fiscal year. And it does not address automatic cuts that remain in force without a deal in a deadlocked Congress.
The Pentagon’s blueprint calls for investments in new aircraft, naval ships, precision-guided bombs and missile defense weaponry, while trying to slow the growth of pay and benefits — currently a third of the military’s budget.
The plan includes 29 F-35 fighter jets, a warplane that is supposed to form the backbone of the military’s future fleet, 18 C-130 cargo aircraft and two Global Hawk surveillance drones.
It also calls for 27 Predator and Reaper armed drones — Obama’s weapon of choice in the air war on Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan and Yemen. Previous budgets called for much larger scale investments in drones but the Air Force wants to spend money on planes that can survive against tough air defenses.
With funds for a new long-range bomber, submarines, aerial refueling tankers and Growler electronic jamming planes, officials said the Pentagon’s budget reflects the Obama administration’s strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific.
But the proposal reflects a more austere era, with funding for all the armed services reduced, except for the Air Force, which receives an increase of $4.7 billion.
The proposal would support 64 air squadrons, but officials say if automatic budget cuts remain in effect, about one third of the combat air fleet would be effectively grounded due to a lack of funds.
The Pentagon envisages cutting a brigade from the Army and an infantry battalion from the Marine Corps.
As for the Navy, the budget would fund two attack submarines, new littoral combat ships designed for coastal operations and P-8 Poseidon aircraft for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare.
But the Navy’s total number of ships would decline to 273 in fiscal year 2014, down from 285 in 2013.
The proposed defense budget amounts to more than $51 billion above spending caps imposed under a 2011 “budget control” law designed to rein in deficits.
If lawmakers fail to forge a compromise on spending and taxes, the Defense Department will have to cut the $51 billion due to the automatic spending reductions known as “sequestration.”
The political gridlock in Congress has produced chronic financial worries for US commanders, who warn that combat readiness is in jeopardy.
“We are living in a world of complete uncertainty,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the budget impasse.
But given mounting tensions with North Korea, Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale told reporters that troops and air squadrons deployed in the region would be shielded from any automatic budget cuts.
Some analysts, however, warned the uncertainty hanging over the military’s budget could puncture US credibility among anxious allies.
“The United States is at risk of over-promising and under-delivering on its global security ambitions,” Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in a commentary.
“American budget cuts have caused both allies and potential adversaries to wonder whether the US military can meet its stated goals.”