WASHINGTON – From the helicopters they fly to the base housing where their children sleep at night, U.S troops and their families are directly affected by the prospect of deep cuts in the Pentagon's budget, which surely will shrink over the coming decade as the military closes out two wars, trims its ranks and possibly chops some budget-busting weapons systems.
And the troops' concerns don't end when they take off the uniform: Many retirees are dependent on the military's health insurance. With Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's blunt acknowledgment this week that the Pentagon "has to do its part" to meet the public clamor for deficit reduction, there's much angst among the uniformed services.
Reflecting the widespread demand for more fiscal responsibility in Washington, the compromise debt deal that President Barack Obama reached with Congress and signed Tuesday will slice $350 billion from projected military spending over the next 10 years. And it leaves open the possibility of up to $500 billion in additional reductions.
In his first Pentagon news conference Thursday, Panetta described a reduction of nearly $1 trillion as a "doomsday" scenario that would mean "dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families and our ability to protect the nation." Panetta, who was White House budget chief in the Clinton administration, called the cuts "completely unacceptable" and vowed to fight them.
"People expect the military to provide for our security," Panetta told reporters.
In sounding the alarm, Panetta is pressuring Democrats and Republicans alike to consider making concessions on their core priorities — entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security defended by Democrats and increases in taxes resisted by Republicans — before taking a knife to defense.
Military families, who have struggled with the death, injuries and separations associated with a decade of war since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, are now increasingly fretting about such things as possible personnel cuts and the prospect of stretching a smaller force to fit whatever new conflicts or other challenges arise.
At Thursday's news conference, Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not rule out the possibility of personnel cuts to a military that has expanded to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense leaders could offer few details about what potential cuts may mean for operations and benefits programs popular in military circles.
"Military service members, veterans and their families are not only ... going through the economic uncertainty with everyone else, but we have 10 years of war on top of that," said Kelly Hruska, government relations deputy director at the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va.
Anthony Adams, 43, a Navy chief warrant officer based at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City who was attending the National Naval Officers Association meeting in San Diego, said he hopes policymakers are keeping in mind the sacrifices military members have made.
"They assume everything is taken care of, but someone has been in harm's way while people have been reaping all the benefits of it," said Adams, who is preparing to retire.
Marine Lt. Col. Gilbert Warner, who is based in Okinawa, Japan, said everyone is worried about what's ahead.
"I mean who wouldn't be?" said Warner, who also was attending the naval officers meeting. "First, I'm concerned about the resources being available to service members, and, second, the benefits for the retired."
Mullen pointed out that the military has a crowded must-do list: the two wars, support for the NATO-led operation in Libya, disaster relief missions in Haiti and Japan, and defense of national interests.
"Debilitating and capricious cuts nearly double to those already in the offing," Mullen warned, would put "at grave risk not only our ability to accomplish the missions we have been assigned, but those we have yet to be assigned as well."
Defense budgets, not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have jumped since 9/11, from just over $370 billion in the late 1990s to around $550 billion today. In the political clamor to slash deficits, Obama this past spring called for $400 billion in defense cuts over 12 years. As a result, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched a comprehensive review of the military's strategy and capabilities. That review could be completed by the end of the summer.
Setting the agenda now is the debt-limit deal that calls for cutting more than $2 trillion from federal spending over a decade.
In the initial phase, all security spending — for defense, homeland security, veterans, foreign aid and intelligence — would be cut from the current level of $687 billion to $683 billion in next year's budget. Defense would take a share of that $4 billion reduction.
The next step is what Panetta fears: A 12-member, House-Senate committee must propose up to $1.5 trillion more in cuts over a decade and do so by Nov. 23. If the committee deadlocks or if Congress rejects its recommendations, the Obama administration would be required to impose automatic, across-the-board spending cuts of up to $1.2 trillion, with half coming from defense.
"Clearly we don't want to get to the point ... it's going to be bloody," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The budget proposals provide no specifics, but several programs are often mentioned as possible targets.
Ten years in, the multibillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. The cost of buying more than 2,400 of the next-generation aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps has jumped from $233 billion to $385 billion.
Another potential target is the Medium Extended Air Defense System, a missile defense program being done in conjunction with Italy and Germany. The Pentagon said earlier this year it would not implement the program, though research will continue for two more years at a cost of more than $800 million.
Among the other targets are the numbers of ships and submarines the Pentagon buys.
One of the most costly programs for the Defense Department is health care coverage for some 10 million active duty personnel, retirees, reservists and their families. The cost has jumped from $19 billion in 2001 to $53 billion now.
Obama proposed increasing the fees for working-age retirees enrolled in the decades-old health program known as TRICARE, but has encountered resistance from lawmakers and various associations for military retirees.
Debt-limit negotiators looked at changes in TRICARE for possible savings, and the special bipartisan committee is likely to consider the program in its calculations.
That concerns Robert Hannon, 69, of Smithfield, Va., a former state commander of the American Legion in Virginia. He said there's a misconception that military retirees all have fat benefits. He said many older military retirees live on a low fixed income.
"They just don't have the money," said Hannon, a retired Navy chief warrant officer who said he's fearful that premiums and co-payments will be raised for those over age 65 who use what's called TRICARE For Life.
"My major concern as a retiree is what are they going to try to do to TRICARE For Life?" Hannon said. "I fully feel they owe us that."
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Donna Cassata in Washington and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.