Get real on defense spending

In the push to cut federal spending, Congress and President Obama need to get serious about reducing the military's budget.

The Pentagon was largely protected during House Republicans' recent move to cut more than $60 billion from the current year's budget. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates' promise to cut $78 billion over five years would only slow growth in the military budget.

The military accounts for an enormous share of federal spending. The Defense Department's proposed budget for fiscal 2012 is $553 billion. That doesn't include an estimated $117 billion to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since fiscal 2004, the base military budget has increased 45 percent.

The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee appointed by the president recommended cutting the military's budget by about $400 billion over the next five years. Instead, Obama's budget "dodges a lot of hard decisions," said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant defense secretary.

Lawmakers did take a small step toward spreading the budget cuts around more fairly when the House voted to eliminate $450 million this year for an alternate engine for the F-35 stealth fighter jet. The engine is manufactured by General Electric, and some of the jobs lost from the program would be in the district of Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio).

Of the 87 new Republican House members, 47 voted to kill the fighter engine. Among them was Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.).

But Meehan successfully fought off an amendment that would have cut funding for the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft manufactured in part by Boeing in Ridley Township, Delaware County - part of Meehan's district. The Simpson-Bowles commission recommended cuts to this aircraft program. , and military officials and political leaders have tried periodically to end it.

Meehan said he fought for the aircraft "not simply because it's built in Ridley. It's proving itself."

One of the difficulties in cutting military spending is that lawmakers around the nation are just as determined as Meehan to save jobs in their districts - even for projects the Pentagon doesn't request. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that "every year, the Congress was stuffing $10 billion down the Pentagon's throat that we didn't want."

Washington needs to look at troop reductions, and to limit or end costly weapons systems such as the Navy's new class of aircraft carriers, which cost $14 billion apiece. Without a Cold War to fight, analysts question how many more $2 billion nuclear submarines the nation needs.

Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), a member of the House Budget Committee, said savings will be achieved as the nation brings home troops from Afghanistan, although the timing isn't certain.

Congress and the Obama administration need to take a harder look at defense spending. Whatever the pace of deficit reduction, the military must shoulder its fair share of the cutbacks.