Cuts in health care, retirement and benefits for the military are all potential targets for cuts as the nation struggles to rein in spending, the top U.S. military officer told anxious troops on two warfronts.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that while the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going down as U.S. forces withdraw over the next few years, the latest debt agreement will demand defense cuts. Nothing is off the table, he said.
From the Marines battling a fierce insurgency in southwestern Afghanistan to soldiers packing up to leave Iraq, troops quizzed Mullen about rumors that military retirement benefits and health care would be affected as part of the debt compromise being hammered out in Congress.
"If we're going to cut spending, we have to go where the money is," Mullen told several hundred troops gathered at the Al Faw Palace on the soon-to-be-shuttered Camp Victory outside Baghdad on Tuesday morning.
Well more than half of the defense budget, he said, is spent on personnel issues, ranging from pay and benefits to bonuses used to recruit and retain needed expertise.
In Washington, the Pentagon had no immediate comment Tuesday on how the debt ceiling measure would affect defense operations.
"I don't think we fully know yet," said Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman. "We're still looking at this to determine ... impacts."
The plan calls for $350 billion in defense savings over 10 years but also sets up a special bipartisan committee to draft legislation to find more government cuts. If the committee cannot agree on a deficit-reduction plan by year's end or if Congress rejects its proposal, it would trigger some $500 billion in additional reductions in projected national security spending.
While acknowledging he still did not know the total cut in defense spending that will be required by the legislative package, Mullen repeated his contention that the debt is one of the biggest threats to national security. But he vowed that Pentagon leaders will continue to ensure that troops on the front lines get the equipment and services they need to fight, and that any cuts will be done carefully.
"I have an expectation that there will be defense cuts as part of this," said Mullen. "I just don't know what those will be."
In response to direct questions about retirement benefits from troops, Mullen said he does not expect immediate changes.
Currently, military members who retire after 20 years receive 50 percent of their pay, and that percentage inches up as additional years of service are tacked on. About 13 percent of those who enlist actually make it to the 20-year mark.
Cuts to retirement and other benefits have long been avoided by Congress members leery of going after the troops they send to war.
But Mullen said the chiefs of the military services have talked about the issue, and he said there may be a review of those issues.
He said the service chiefs would recommend that if such a change were considered, troops with some years of military service would be grandfathered in, so they would not be affected. He did not specify how many years of service that would be.
While promising a balanced approach that looks at spending on military people, operations and equipment, Mullen predicted that bonuses will be harder to get and poor-performing procurement programs will be eliminated.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report from Washington.