By David Alexander and Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon unveiled budget cuts on Thursday that would slash the size of the U.S. military by eliminating thousands of jobs, mothballing ships and trimming air squadrons in an effort to shift strategic direction and reduce spending by $487 billion over a decade.
The funding request, which includes painful cuts for many states, sets the stage for a new struggle between President Barack Obama's administration and Congress over how much the Pentagon should spend on national security as the country tries to curb trillion-dollar budget deficits.
"Make no mistake, the savings we are proposing will impact all 50 states and many districts across America," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a news conference at the Pentagon. "This will be a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or action."
Panetta, previewing plans that will be formally announced next month, said he would ask for a $525 billion base budget for the 2013 fiscal year, the first time since September 11, 2001, that the Pentagon has asked for less than the previous year.
Panetta said he would seek $88.4 billion to support combat operations in Afghanistan, down from $115 billion in 2012 largely due to the end of the war in Iraq and the withdrawal of U.S. forces there at the end of last year.
The budget begins to flesh out a new military strategy announced by the Pentagon earlier this month that calls for a shift in focus from the ground wars of the past decade towards efforts to preserve stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East.
It would delay the purchases of weapons like Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's largest procurement program, as well as submarines, amphibious assault ships and other vessels.
The Pentagon would increase its emphasis on drone aircraft and would go ahead with a long-range bomber and proceed with other weapons that would allow it to project power from a longer range, a capability needed in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East.
The size of the active-duty Army would be trimmed to 490,000 over five years from its wartime peak of 570,000 in 2010 and the size of the Marine Corps would fall to 182,000 from its high of about 202,000.
Military pay increases would begin to slow after two more years of growth, and fees would be increased on healthcare benefits for military retirees, those who served more than 20 years, both above and below the age of 65.
In addition, the Pentagon would:
- Delay development of a new ballistic missile submarine by two years;
- Eliminate six of the Air Force's tactical-air fighter squadrons and retire or divest 130 aircraft used for moving troops and equipment;
- Retire seven Navy cruisers and two smaller amphibious ships early, postpone the purchase of a big-deck amphibious ship by one year and postpone the planned purchase of a number of other vessels for several years;
- Eliminate two Army heavy brigades stationed in Europe and compensate by rotating U.S. based units into the region for training and exercises.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)