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Hagel Laments 'Political' Changes to U.S. Defense Budget

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday criticized changes made by U.S. lawmakers to last year's defense budget as purely political and contrary to the department's future as envisioned by Pentagon leaders.

Hagel expressed frustration that -- despite Pentagon efforts to trim programs it deems bloated -- members of Congress have reintroduced expendable programs, apparently to please constituents in their home districts.

"These shifts were forced primarily by political realities, not strategy or analysis," the U.S. defense chief said in written remarks ahead of a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

Hagel cited one particular example in which the Pentagon had hoped to trim "excess air capacity" in the air force reserve, but was thwarted by lawmakers who rejected the cuts.

"The Department's position continues to be that retaining excess air capacity in the reserve component is an unnecessary expenditure of government funds that detracts from more pressing military priorities outlined in the defense strategic guidance," he said in his written comments to the committee, without voicing those reservations in his spoken remarks.

"Last year (the Defense Department) submitted proposals for changes in Air Force and Navy force structure -- some were rejected by Congress," he said.

"We continue to believe, however, that these reductions are consistent with our defense strategy and the need to hold down costs," Hagel said.

He also lamented lawmakers' decision not to support Pentagon plans to retire seven Aegis cruisers and two amphibious ships at the end of the 2014 fiscal year, when funds appropriated for their operation run out.

Hagel said he would resubmit some items from its 2013 fiscal year budget, in the hope lawmakers will reconsider.

"The high costs of maintaining these older ships relative to their capabilities argues strongly for their retirement," he added in his written testimony.

Hagel also reiterated his concern over the impact that the automatic and across-the-board "sequester" cuts will have on defense spending this year, unless lawmakers reach a solution to exempt military spending, which would depend upon lawmakers achieving a broader agreement on deficit reduction with President Barack Obama.

The budget request from the Pentagon is $526.6 billion dollars, but if no deal on the sequester it reached, Hagel warned that $52 billion of automatic cuts likely will have to be implemented.

He added that "if there is no action by the Congress, roughly $500 billion in reductions to defense spending would be required over the next nine years."

Hagel's appearance before the panel came one day after the Pentagon laid out a budget plan that would hold military spending steady next year, without taking into account the cost of the war in Afghanistan or rolling automatic budget cuts.

President Barack Obama's request of $526.6 billion for the Defense Department keeps the base budget at about the same level as in 2013, avoiding dramatic cuts to weapons or benefits.

The proposal leaves out the cost of the war in Afghanistan, projected to surpass $80 billion in the current fiscal year, however. And it does not address automatic cuts that remain in force without a deal in a deadlocked Congress.

The Pentagon's blueprint calls for investments in new aircraft, naval ships, precision-guided bombs and missile defense weaponry, while trying to slow the growth of pay and benefits -- currently a third of the military's budget.

The plan includes 29 F-35 fighter jets, a warplane that is supposed to form the backbone of the military's future fleet, 18 C-130 cargo aircraft and two Global Hawk surveillance drones.

It also calls for 27 Predator and Reaper armed drones -- Obama's weapon of choice in the air war on al-Qaida militants in Pakistan and Yemen.

Previous budgets called for much larger scale investments in drones but the Air Force wants to spend money on planes that can survive against tough air defenses.

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