OTTAWA, Ontario – Defense Secretary Robert Gates is accusing Congress of dumping a "crisis on my doorstep" by holding the Pentagon to last year's spending levels and creating a potential $23 billion gap that could weaken a wartime military.
"That's how you hollow out a military," Gates said Thursday.
Gates said it looks increasingly likely that Congress will not act on the Pentagon's 2011 budget request even as lawmakers argue over Gates' proposal to slow the rate of increase in defense spending next year and freeze it by 2015.
Gates was in Canada for North American defense talks. In an interview as he traveled to the Canadian capital, the Pentagon chief said he understands that his proposal for $78 billion in cuts in future spending has run into opposition among lawmakers.
The opposition is bipartisan — from Republicans who oppose any reductions and Democrats along with some Republicans backed by the tea party who say Gates isn't cutting enough.
Rhetoric on all sides ignores "the real world that I live in," Gates said.
He warned of emergency cuts if the Pentagon is forced to live within last year's means when it had planned for more.
Congress has not acted on the $549 billion request for the budget year that began on Oct. 1. Congress last fall passed a stop-gap government spending measure that keeps budgets at the previous year's levels. For the Pentagon, that means a budget of about $526 billion, officials say, not counting war funding.
Gates said the separate request for spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will fall to about $120 billion for 2012 from about $159 billion this year, reflecting the planned final troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Gates said lawmakers appear so eager to fight over the longer-range Pentagon spending proposal that they are ignoring the near-term effects of not passing a new budget for the current year.
If the stop-gap approach is not replaced by a new budget, the Pentagon will face a money pinch that "could have an impact on training across the entire force," and in other areas, Gates said.
One example: After years of concern that the fast pace of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prevented the Army and Marine Corps from doing a full range of training at home, they finally are in position to correct that shortcoming, Gates said. But the training may be unaffordable for the remainder of this year unless Congress replaces the stop-gap budget, known as a continuing resolution, with a new budget by March.
"It's one thing to talk about 2012 and then to express concerns about something that may or may not happen in four or five years," he said, such as Gates' proposal to reduce the size of the Army and the Marine Corps starting in 2015. "But I have a crisis on my doorstep. And I want them to deal with the crisis on my doorstep before we start arguing about the levels (of spending) in 2012."
The Pentagon's proposed spending plan for 2012-16 will be part of the budget President Barack Obama submits to Congress the week of Feb. 14.
The debate over defense spending next year and beyond was on full display Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, where Republicans posed tough questions about the risks of slashing too deep and shortchanging U.S. forces.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the committee's new chairman, took the lead by declaring, "I will not support any measures that stress our forces and jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform."
Steering the 2012 defense budget through congressional criticism that it is either too ambitious or too meek is likely to be one of Gates' final campaigns before retiring. If he quits this summer, as many believe likely, he will have been one of the longest-serving defense secretaries since the post was created in 1947. He started in December 2006, succeeding Donald H. Rumsfeld, who resigned amid heavy criticism over the Iraq war.
In the interview Wednesday, Gates was vague about his retirement plans.
"My lips are sealed," the former CIA chief said when asked when he intends to leave. "I'm going to be around for a number of months," including during the budget hearings on Capitol Hill in February and March, Gates said. Last year he said he planned to quit sometime in 2011.
Gates has fashioned himself into a guardian of the U.S. military's global pre-eminence, but he also has cautioned that military muscle can be an illusion.
"Possessing the ability to annihilate other militaries is no guarantee we can achieve our strategic goals," he told Army officers in May.
In that same vein, he launched his current effort to preserve military strength while accepting that the nation's grim financial condition means the days of big annual raises for the Pentagon are over.
He demanded that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps find $100 billion in budget savings over the coming five years, while allowing them to keep most of that savings for other needs. The military services responded with investments in a modernized fleet of Army tanks, more strike and surveillance drone aircraft for the Navy and Air Force, and more missile interceptors for use in an expanded missile defense system in Europe.