Pentagon Unveils 'Disciplined' Defense Budget for Fiscal 2013

However, if Congress fails to agree on how to slash the deficit by January 2013, dramatic defense reductions of about $500 billion would be triggered under a law adopted last year.

The Defense Department's request of $613 billion for fiscal year 2013 essentially holds military spending steady after a decade of gargantuan budgets, avoiding deep reductions while saving money from the withdrawal of U.S. forces out of Iraq and a gradual troop drawdown in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon's base budget would reach $525.4 billion starting in October, slightly down compared with $530.6 in the current fiscal year, while war spending would decline to $88.5 billion compared with $115.1 billion.

The figures represent the first drop in the base budget following 10 years of steady expansion, spurred by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Dramatic Cuts on the Horizon?

Fiscal pressures have forced military chiefs to scale back projected spending by $487 billion over the next decade, a task that they have portrayed as tough but manageable.

Yet a threat of dramatic defense cuts is looming on the political horizon.

If Congress fails to agree on how to slash the deficit by January 2013, dramatic defense reductions of about $500 billion would be triggered under a law adopted last year.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and senior officials warn that such cutbacks would be catastrophic and could jeopardize the country's military power. But the Pentagon has steadfastly insisted it will not draw up any fallback plan in the event of deadlock in Congress.

Spokesman George Little has said repeatedly that the department is not drafting plans for such a scenario, and analysts say Panetta has calculated that even discussing contingencies could make the deep cuts more likely.

In outlining the Defense Department's proposed budget, the Pentagon touted the plan as a careful balancing of priorities that underscores an era of austerity after years of unfettered growth.

"The proposed budget makes more disciplined use of defense dollars to maintain the world's finest military and sustain U.S. global leadership," the department said in a statement.

The budget request does not call for eliminating any weapons program, but the Pentagon said it plans to save $15.1 billion over the next five years by slowing production of the new F-35 fighter jet to allow more time to iron out technical problems.

The department cited several programs as high priorities, including $3.4 billion for cyber warfare, $3.8 billion for drone aircraft, $8 billion for space "initiatives," $9.7 billion for missile defense and $10.4 billion for special operations forces -- the elite troops that have taken on a pivotal role since 9/11.

Critics on the political right have warned that the American military could be seriously weakened by the proposed spending plan, citing threats from Iran and China's growing power.

But voices on the left, including some of Obama's fellow Democrats in Congress, argue that the defense budget is still bloated and have called for deeper cuts to weapons programs, including reducing spending on the nuclear arsenal.

The U.S. military budget far exceeds those of other countries. China, which has the world's second-largest military budget, says it spent 601.1 billion yuan ($91.1 billion) in 2011, though many foreign experts believe that the actual figure is higher.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012

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