By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate panel on Tuesday approved defense spending of about $630 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, freezing the Pentagon's base budget at $513 billion for a second straight year while seeking nearly $118 billion for U.S. wars abroad.
The $513 billion Pentagon base budget would be $26 billion less than requested by President Barack Obama and nearly $20 billion less than approved by the House of Representatives. It follows a debt reduction deal in August that calls for cutting national security spending by $350 billion over 10 years.
Funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, at $117.8 billion, would be about $41 billion less than in the current fiscal year, largely due to the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq by the end of 2011.
To achieve the lower base spending levels, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee recommended billions in cuts, including $1.2 billion to Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Pentagon's largest procurement project.
It also recommended termination of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle Program, which aims to produce a replacement for the Army and Marine Corps' fleet of Humvee vehicles, and rejected the Navy's request for a Mobile Landing Platform vessel, saying it should be delayed for a year.
"While this was not an easy allocation to make, I can assure that this recommendation takes care of our men and women in uniform and their families, fully supports military readiness, protects the forces and maintains our technological edge," Senator Daniel Inouye, the panel chairman, said in prepared remarks.
The full Appropriations Committee will take up the bill on Thursday.
Inouye said the budget included a 1.6 percent pay raise for military personnel, $250 million for shortfalls in military personnel and $40 billion for defense health programs, a $1 billion increase over the 2011 levels.
He said the panel had taken care to ensure no erosion of military readiness while reducing funding. Cuts to operations and maintenance, for example, were achieved mainly by eliminating "lax budgeting practices by the military departments," he said.
While cutting $1.2 billion from Lockheed Martin's troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the panel "continues to strongly support this program and believe that the F-35 is showing progress since it was restructured last year," Inouye said.
But he said the subcommittee believed production of the fighters should be maintained at current levels for the next two years, rather than ramping up in 2012 and 2013 as had been planned.
"We recommend maintaining production at the fiscal 2011 levels for two more years in order to limit out-year cost growth," Inouye said. "For each aircraft we build this early in the test program, we will have to pay many millions in the future to fix the problems that are identified in testing."
The Pentagon is currently planning to purchase 2,443 of the aircraft through 2035 at a total cost of some $385 billion. The three different variants of the aircraft are meant to replace several different types of planes in current use.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)