OTTAWA - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Pentagon is facing a spending "crisis" and could be forced to make immediate cuts in training and operations because Congress has failed to approve a final budget for the military this year.
Gates said the Defense Department might have to cut projected spending by as much as $23 billion this year unless Congress acts soon. The Obama administration submitted its annual budget proposal of $549 billion for the Pentagon 11 months ago, but lawmakers still have not taken a final vote.
In the meantime, Congress has agreed to temporarily fund the military and other branches of the government based on spending levels from the 2010 federal budget. That provides for about $526 billion in defense spending, Pentagon officials said, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I have a crisis on my doorstep. And I want them to deal with the crisis on my doorstep," Gates said in a joint interview with The Washington Post, the Associated Press and the New York Times aboard his military aircraft Wednesday evening as he flew here for meetings with Canadian defense officials.
Although Gates said U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan "will probably be pretty well protected" from any potential cuts this year, he said domestic training and maintenance would have to be curtailed for the Army, Air Force and Navy. "Frankly, that's how you hollow out a military, even in wartime."
Congress often drags its feet in budgetary matters, but its deliberations were further delayed by the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in November. Republicans traditionally have been proponents of robust defense spending. But with the U.S. government facing record deficits, some party leaders have said the Pentagon - which accounts for nearly a fifth of the federal budget - shouldn't escape scrutiny.
For nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Pentagon has benefited from huge spending increases authorized by Congress. With the war in Iraq winding down and federal debts piling up, however, Gates has increasingly had to fight to shield the military from budget cutters.
On Jan. 6, Gates announced that the Obama administration would cut $78 billion over the next five years from the Pentagon's long-term spending plan. While the Defense Department's budget would continue to grow during that time, it would do so at a much slower pace and would barely exceed inflation by 2016.
To meet those targets, Gates proposed killing a troubled $15 billion Marine Corps program to build a new amphibious landing craft, delaying production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and shrinking the size of the Army and Marine Corps by about 37,000 troops, combined.
While Gates said the Pentagon could live with those trims, he warned lawmakers at the time not to go deeper, saying further reductions would be "risky at best and potentially calamitous."
The additional expense of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is also expected to drop substantially in the coming years.
In the interview Wednesday, Gates said the Obama administration would ask Congress for $120 billion in supplemental funding for the wars in 2012, down from the $159 billion it sought for this year.