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Cuts in U.S. defense spending force hard strategic choices

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Big budget cuts over the next decade will force the Pentagon to make painful cuts to personnel and readiness and could make it hard to execute a global security strategy, defense analysts predicted on Wednesday.

Teams of analysts from four think tanks, who unveiled the results of a defense budget-cutting exercise at a Capitol Hill briefing, all found themselves slashing large numbers of civilian and uniformed personnel, along with ships and fighter jets, to help meet tough budget targets facing the Pentagon.

"It is very, very hard to reach the required level of budget savings in the first ... (five-year planning period) if you don't touch personnel, readiness or both, frankly, because that's where the money is," said Nora Bensahel, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"You can't do it by just picking out a few systems here and there," she said.

The analysts unveiled their thinking on the 2015 defense budget and U.S. military strategy just a month before the Pentagon releases its own budget for the upcoming fiscal year as well as the Quadrennial Defense Review, a document produced every four years aligning U.S. strategy and resources.

The budget drill, developed by Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, required participants to design two budget scenarios, one cutting spending by $330 billion over a decade as required by current law, and a second reducing it by nearly $200 billion over the same period.

The four teams could rebalance spending among 800 categories to achieve their strategic aims.

All teams cut the civilian defense workforce by 100,000 or more in the first five-year planning period, known as the Future Years Defense Program. The teams slashed the size of the Army, which is currently shrinking to 490,000, by another 70,000 to 140,000 soldiers.

The four teams all reduced the number of U.S. aircraft carriers and destroyers under both scenarios, eliminated the active-duty A-10 Warthog aircraft, retired two variants of the F/A-18 fighter, and authorized a round of base closures.

Three of the four teams increased the number of nuclear-powered submarines, and most put more money into protecting satellite communications and offensive cyber capabilities.

Thomas Donnelly, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the cuts required under the 2011 Budget Control Act passed by Congress were so big they tended to eliminate differences between the teams.

"When you take away that much money it's hard to differentiate," he said. "You can rearrange the deck chairs but you're still on the Titanic."

The AEI team also tested a strategy focused on maintaining a reasonable force in the Middle East while increasing the U.S. presence in Asia. The cost was about $800 billion more than allowed under current plans for the next decade, but less than the defense budget before 2011.

Donnelly said the implication was that if the Pentagon does fully implement the 2011 defense cuts, "our ability to execute a global strategy is going to be really tenuous at best."

(Reporting by David Alexander, editing by Tom Brown)

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