WASHINGTON — For the first time in more than a decade, the Pentagon announced plans Thursday to freeze its ballooning budget, forcing the services to shrink the Army and Marine Corps and increase health care premiums for military retirees and their families.
The reduction of as many as 47,000 troops from Army and Marine forces — roughly 6 percent — would be the first since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The cuts will be made easier by the withdrawal under way from Iraq and will only begin in 2015, just as Afghan forces are to take over the security mission there, according to agreements with NATO.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the cuts were hardly a peace dividend and were forced by a global economic recession and domestic pressures to find ways to throttle back federal spending. Indeed, the announcement of his proposal, which Congress would have to approve, came on the same day as word that he would add about 1,400 Marines to the forces in Afghanistan.
Gates said the budget proposals reflect the "extreme fiscal duress" felt by the U.S. government, and he acknowledged that protecting American global interests and sustaining the entire gamut of American power required the military to take a tough look at its spending practices.
The Pentagon's proposed operating budget for 2012 is expected to be about $553 billion, which will still reflect real growth, even though it is $13 billion less than requested. But then the Pentagon budget will begin a decline in the rate of growth for two years, and then will stay flat — even with inflation — for fiscal years 2015 and 2016. Over five years, the reductions would amount to $78 billion. The Pentagon operating budget is separate from a contingency fund that pays for combat and stability efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The last time the Pentagon's budget went down was in 1998.
The plan is aimed at helping the nation whittle away at its massive deficit. But the proposal, which also relies on another $100 billion in cost-saving moves to cover urgent requirements, is tied to two assumptions: that the war in Afghanistan will end on time and that Congress will agree to cancel popular job-making programs and charge retired military families more for health care.
Gates acknowledged that projections about what the world will look like so far in the future have a troubled track record.
But the Defense Department is not exempt from belt-tightening just because of its charge to defend the nation, he said.
"Looking five years into the future is through a pretty cloudy crystal ball," Gates said. "Any number of these decisions could be reversed."
Total health care costs for the Pentagon, which is the nation's single largest employer, top $50 billion a year, a tenth of its budget and about the same amount that it is spending this year on the war in Iraq. Ten years ago, health care cost the Pentagon $19 billion; five years from now it is projected to cost $65 billion.
The plan assumes that Congress will agree to $7 billion in health care reforms for military families. Gates has long argued that benefits provided under the military's TRICARE system are too generous. For example, he said, the basic family plan costs only $460 a year — a fee that hasn't been increased since 1995 and would cost $5,000 a year for civilian federal workers.
Gates said he wants military retirees under the age of 65 to pay "modest" increases to fees.
Although it took Gates more than 30 minutes to read an explanation of the reductions, he called the proposals modest and realistic.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that all four service chiefs supported the proposals and that the military would still be able to manage global risks.
Almost immediately the proposal ran into opposition in Congress, including Republicans who say President Barack Obama is short-changing the military.
"I'm not happy," said Rep. Buck McKeon, who as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee helps oversee the military budget.
"This is a dramatic shift for a nation at war and a dangerous signal from the commander-in-chief," McKeon, R-Calif., added.
The Defense Department represents the largest portion of the federal government's discretionary budget.
"We have nearly doubled our military budget in the past 10 years," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told his local newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, this week.
"To avoid bankruptcy, we will have to evaluate all spending — from food stamps to foreign aid to foreign wars," Paul said.
Gates said his proposal falls between the extremes of those who want to slash the Pentagon budget and those who want to expand it.
To help offset the cost, Gates said the Pentagon would reduce the number of soldiers in the Army by 27,000 and trim the Marines by 20,000, saving as much as $6 billion.
Other savings would be found by freezing civilian pay, reducing the number of generals and admirals, and other bureaucratic steps.
Separately, about $100 billion in savings was found in the services' five-year budgets. However, Gates said, the services will mostly be allowed to reinvest that money into programs they want, including weapon modernization.
Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.