WASHINGTON — The Obama administration called for a halt in reducing military spending, arguing that further cuts would result in a significantly smaller Army and Marine Corps, the mothballing of airplanes and an aircraft carrier, and the purchase of fewer ships and advanced fighter jets in coming years.
Without Pentagon budget hikes averaging about 3% annually, it might be unable to carry out President Obama's military strategy, which calls for shifting forces to the Pacific, increasing cyber-operations and deterring terror attacks from Africa and the Middle East, senior Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
"A strategy must have the resources for its implementation," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement released along with the details of the Pentagon's $496-billion proposed budget for 2015. Future cuts "would result in unacceptable risks to our national security."
Proposed weapon spending calls for the retirement of aging Cold War weapon systems, such as the entire fleet of the Air Force's A-10 Warthog ground attack jets and U-2 spy planes.
Funding instead would continue to flow to newer, big-ticket programs such as Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets and Northrop Grumman Corp.'s RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, both of which are largely made in Palmdale.
Still, military contractors recognize there is a long road before the budget becomes law.
"This is just the beginning of a long budget process," said Meghan McCormick, spokeswoman for aerospace giant Boeing Co. "It is too early for us to speculate on what it may ultimately mean for our programs and the facilities and employees supporting them."
The call for raising spending on the military — even as the Defense Department shifts from a wartime to a peacetime footing after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — comes the same week as a flare-up of tensions in Ukraine over Russia's decision to send troops into the Crimean Peninsula.
Though the U.S. military is not engaged in the region, the crisis "shows the different kinds of threats we're seeing in Europe" and the need for "military options for a range of situations," said Christine Wormuth, the deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy.
But the White House faces a contentious fight with Congress over lifting the automatic cuts in future military spending levels, set in law last year. Though lawmakers and Obama reached a budget deal that eased them in 2015, the cuts are still in effect from 2016 to 2021.
"I think it'll be an uphill battle to try to get Congress to go along with appropriating more for defense" after this year, said Todd Harrison, a military budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy analysis organization.
The administration's five-year plan calls for increasing the Pentagon budget $115 billion over the mandated budget levels, along with a separate $26-billion hike in 2015.
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, indicated support for reversing the Pentagon cuts.
"While we cut nearly one-fifth of our defense resources, Russia and China are arming at an alarming rate. Russia's military spending is up roughly 30%, and China's has more than doubled in recent years," he said.
Along with the budget, the Pentagon released a strategy document, called the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. Though written before Russia's military moves in Crimea, it says the U.S. will "continue to work to achieve a Europe that is peaceful and prosperous" and "will engage Russia constructively in support of that objective."
The Pentagon outlined the cutbacks it will have to make in future years if the automatic cuts remain in effect. The Navy said it would have to mothball one of its 10 aircraft carriers after the Ford enters service next year.
Unless the cuts are reversed, the Army would have to shrink to around 420,000 soldiers, officials said. With the war in Afghanistan ending, the number is expected to fall to a range of 440,000 to 450,000, the smallest it has been since before World War II. The Marine Corps would need to contract to 175,000 from 197,000. It had planned to drop to 182,000.
The Air Force said it would have to get rid of 80 additional airplanes, including all of its Boeing KC-135 refueling tankers and its Global Hawk surveillance drones made by Northrop. Instead of 343 of the radar-evading F-35 fighters made by Lockheed, it could afford only 326, Pentagon officials said.
The Navy would be able to buy only 36 ships, instead of the 44 it had planned, officials said.
If required to make such cutbacks, senior Pentagon officials said Monday, they would have to scale down radically the U.S. military commitments and missions at home and abroad.
The Pentagon made similar warnings last year when military spending was slashed by $45 billion.
Lockheed spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the company is reviewing the president's budget and will continue to assess it as Congress begins the appropriations process
"Over the next few weeks, we will review the budget in detail to understand the specific impacts to our business," he said.
Cloud reported from Washington, D.C., Hennigan from Los Angeles.