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Defense Secretary Gates to outline Pentagon budget

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: Defense Secretary Robert Gates will give a speech at the American Enterprise Institute — perhaps the last time in his role — to outline his vision of what the defense budget should be. It’s a budget that topped $660 billion in fiscal 2010. The biggest military budget in the world. And nearly 20 percent of the total federal budget. And now that Congress is in budget-cutting mode, there are eyes and scissors focused on the Defense Department.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and he’s with us from Washington. Good morning.

MICHAEL O’HANLON: Good morning. Nice to be with you.

CHIOTAKIS: Thank you. So, a couple of wars going on and the situation in Libya as well. How do you cut from the defense budget in these times?

O’HANLON: Well, the short answer is that you don’t really cut until you’ve wound down the wars. Or at least this large, on going effort in Afghanistan in particular. And that’s certainly been what’s implied or contained in any of the budget plans that Secretary Gates has spelled out so far, including the one released to Congress in February which included the $100 billion in cuts relative to what had previously been expected. Because we have to really wrap up most of the Afghanistan mission before cuts can be possible.

CHIOTAKIS: And isn’t this kind of like then a perfect storm? We’re trying to find ways to cut the budget and the defense budget is a big chunk of it right? So, why not look at this and say, “Hey, this is one place that we can really cut?”

O’HANLON: Well, I think it is one place, but let’s say we were to do what President Obama’s proposed in his April 13 speech. We’re still only going to be saving something like $50 billion a year out of a trillion dollar deficit. And it’s going to cause substantial risk in the defense posture of the United States. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but I am saying we better be aware of the risks. Is a $50 billion chunk out of that trillion dollar deficit worth the risk? My answer actually is no. I think it’s only worth the risk if you get broad based deficit reduction, that includes entitlement reform, tax increases and comprehensive efforts to reduce the deficit.

CHIOTAKIS: What do you think Secretary Gates’ budget legacy will be when he leaves office?

O’HANLON: Well, he’s saying a fair amount about it right now. He seems to be pushing back a bit against the president and that’s a fascinating thing to watch in his outgoing weeks as Secretary of Defense. Also we might have to think of this as sequential. So under Gates we may have certain cuts, Panetta will then come in and complete this review. And so I think Gates will be seen as with most things, as sort of the careful custodian of the Defense Department who was about to impose some discipline but that it was caution and with pretty good arguments before he starts slashing.

CHIOTAKIS: Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Michael, thanks.

O’HANLON: My pleasure thank you.

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