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Hearst-New York Times Column

(As usual, the agreement with the syndicators means this column appears here a week after its newspaper release)

^FIGHTING THE PENTAGON BUDGET BATTLES. . . AND LOSING@<
^(For use by New York Times News Service clients)@<
^By BOB FRANKEN@=
^C.2011 Hearst Newspapers@=
WASHINGTON _ President Eisenhower fell far short in his 1961 farewell address when he warned that ``we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.’’

He understated matters. It's a much more convoluted military-industrial-political-lobbying-bureaucratic complex. When it comes time to slash unnecessary defense spending, its influence can prove to be impenetrable.

Thanks to clever corporations that spread the manufacture of their billion-dollar big-ticket weapons bonanzas over dozens or even hundreds of congressional districts, they create a Gordian knot of employment that members of the House or Senate would untangle only at their political peril.

Enter Leon Panetta, now the CIA director but soon to become the new Pentagon chieftain. At least he knows how the game is played. After all, he was once a chairman of the House Budget Committee and one-time director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

But he hasn't been a secretary of the Department of Defense, surrounded by all the special interests who want to maintain their pet programs, no matter how obsolete or sometimes outright useless.

So when Panetta's soon-to-be predecessor, Robert Gates, insisted last year on shutting down the duplicate jet engine program for the F-35 Strike Force fighter, he went through lobbying and political hell. The redundant engine was finally stricken from the budget as an obvious waste.

But the pain was spread among many congressional districts, so sure enough, when the House Armed services committee rolled out its package for the new Pentagon budget, it included an amendment with procedures that could resurrect that second engine. We should not be surprised.

Gates had rattled his military-industrial-etc. constituency by proclaiming he would ram through $78 billion in Pentagon budget cuts over 10 years (the F-35 redundant engine accounted for $3 billion). That seemed quite bold, until President Obama chimed in to say he expected $400 billion in Pentagon cuts in the next 12 years, which seemed even bolder, until we heard from experts that even $400 billion in cuts would be relatively easy to attain.


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Where, you ask, do we begin? Washington is filled with experts who have answers.
For starters there's the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to kill. But he ran into a buzz saw of pride from the corps, which seemed to be staking its identity on this fixed-wing-rotary-bladed hybrid. Add to that the aforementioned congressional resistance orchestrated by Bell and Boeing, the main manufacturers.

It's worth mentioning that the V-22 will cost $54 billion from start to finish, much of it in overruns.

But it's not just planes and ships that critics believe should get scaled way back. There are troop levels in certain parts of the world, like Europe, where they remain as vestiges of World War II and the Cold War.

Missile defense is also a favorite target. It always is, but somehow it survives.
According to a Swedish Think Tank, SIPRI, U.S. defense spending is double where it was in 2001, 43 percent of the world's total. Second is China at 7.3 percent.

When it comes to killing this goose, the deficit knives usually don't even get close. These golden eggs and constituent bacon are far more profitable, both in the sense of dollars and politics, than are the social programs and entitlements that face draconian budget reductions.

The Pentagon chews up 20 per cent of all federal spending, half of that in the discretionary category, where Congress really has control.

Enter Panetta, who says: ``It’s time for hard choices.’’ But in the patriotic afterglow of the successful Osama Bin Laden special operation, it will be even harder to make the military the target of those hard choices.

The powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard ``Buck’’ McKeon, R-Calif., insists: ``We need to keep the defense budget close to where it is.’’
In doing so he continues to fulfill the Eisenhower military-industrial prophecy, which 50 years later has proven to be relentlessly accurate.
^--@<
(Email: bob(at)hearstdc.com; www.bobfranken.tv)

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