WASHINGTON – Lawmakers overseeing the military questioned the chiefs of staff for the Army (search), Navy (search), Air Force (search) and Marine Corps (search) on Thursday about proposed budget cuts to weapons systems and wondered about the wisdom of wartime reductions and their impact on national security.
Although the Pentagon's budget would increase by $19 billion next year, President Bush's $419 billion proposal would scale back production of a stealth fighter, a transport plane and ships, and eliminate one aircraft carrier.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chiefs of staff said the proposed cuts were driven by budget constraints and that the reductions ran counter to what the military previously had estimated it would need to perform at a high level.
"I want to make sure that we don't engage in a process that is in some ways penny wise and pound foolish," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The committee chairman, Sen. John Warner, said he was shocked at the plan to reduce the number of carriers to 11, because that was not part of the Navy's original proposal. Warner, R-Va., also said the committee was "astonished" at the notion of cutting back production C130J transport aircraft.
Adm. Navy Adm. Vernon Clark said the decision to eliminate a carrier was made late last year after the administration sought additional spending cuts.
Gen. John Jumper of the Air Force told lawmakers that the Pentagon probably will reconsider its decision to cut the transport aircraft because curtailing its production will cost more than anticipated.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he feared the cuts in the shipbuilding budget would produce "a significantly diminished Navy" in 10 years to 20 years.
Clark said he was concerned that with the amount of money spent on vessels over the past 15 years that "we cannot afford over a 250-ship Navy." But he said the Navy must change the way it buys ships because it buys too few per order, which makes each more expensive.
Questioning the proposed cuts to the F/A-22 stealth fighter (search), Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., asked whether the Air Force can guarantee air supremacy without it.
"General, I don't want us to be in a fair fight. I want the men and women that fly for you to have the capability of knocking anything off the ground that might be shot at us, or anything coming out of the sky that might shoot at us or shoot at our men and women on the ground," Chambliss said.
Jumper said the fighter would put U.S. forces ahead of all others for the next 10 years to 20 years and that there are no other weapons systems better than the F/A-22.
Also at the hearing, Democrats criticized the budget for failing to include the billions of dollars it will cost to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's top Democrat, said the request before the committee amounted to a "peacetime budget" that "hides the true size" of the federal deficit.
Both Republicans and Democrats pressed Jumper and Gen. Michael Hegge of the Marine Corps about why the budget did not pay for a permanent increase in troop levels for both branches. The money for 30,000 extra Army troops and 3,000 more Marines is to be included in an upcoming one-year war-funding request.
"We need more troops," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said. "By essentially kicking the can down the road every year, we're losing time."