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Pentagon offers cuts, including cap on troop pay increases

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon took the first major step toward shrinking after a decade of war as it revealed yesterday that it wanted to limit pay raises for troops, increase health insurance fees for military retirees, and close US bases.

Although the pay-raise limits are modest and would not start until 2015, the proposed cuts are certain to ignite a political fight in Congress, which since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has consistently raised military salaries beyond what the Pentagon has recommended.

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Increasing health insurance fees for former service members and closing bases are also fraught with political risk, especially in an election year when Republican presidential candidates are saying that President Obama is decimating the military.

Next fiscal year’s Pentagon budget is set to be $525 billion, down from $531 billion in this fiscal year. As the Pentagon is called on to find $259 billion in cuts during the next five years - and $487 billion during the decade - the department’s budget (not counting the costs of Afghanistan or other wars) will nonetheless rise to $567 billion by 2017.

Although troops left Iraq and the Obama administration has plans to drawn down in Afghanistan, the new budget proposal will include a request for $88.4 billion to pay for overseas combat operations next year. The current combat contingency account is $115 billion.

The modest changes to military pay and benefits were an acknowledgement of the political risk of loading budget cuts on the backs of active-duty and retired personnel. Other savings come, as expected, from reducing the size of the military and canceling, or stretching out, weapons purchases.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has disclosed that two heavy Army brigades will come home from Europe during the next decade, leaving an airborne brigade and a Stryker cavalry brigade.

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Most of the broad outlines, and even many of the finer details, of the budget cuts described yesterday by Panetta and General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were previously disclosed.

But even as the administration vows to focus on the Asia-Pacific region while not decreasing US influence and deterrence in the Persian Gulf, a number of warship and jet-fighter programs useful in long-range missions are being trimmed.

Panetta has repeatedly stated that he will preserve funding for special operations forces; cyberwarfare; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, and the budget makes good on that promise.

Panetta did not say how much military pay raises would be limited.

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