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Events frequently overtake long-term Pentagon planning

President Obama seeks cuts in future defense budgets, but any plan will likely see multiple revisions in the years ahead.

As part of his sweeping plan to reduce the nation's deficit, President Obama on Wednesday laid out a long-term effort to carve an additional $400 billion out of the Pentagon's budget by 2023 -- a move that would mean more cuts than those Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already put on the table.

Obama said he is launching a high-level Pentagon review to determine what, specifically, he should target for cuts. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said cuts of that size would require the military to reduce its force structure and its war-fighting capabilities -- essentially scaling back its set of missions.

To assuage critics already concerned about the end of a historic period of growth to the defense budget, Obama pledged to "never accept cuts that compromise our ability to defend our homeland or America's interests around the world."

But the proposed defense cuts drew sharp rebukes from House Republicans, who slammed the president for suggesting decreases to defense spending while the military is engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

"Assigning a specific number to national security cuts prior to the completion of a comprehensive review of our military's roles and missions seems to be putting the cart before the horse," House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said in a statement Wednesday.

Regardless of the scope of the review, any long-term defense plan will require significant -- and, most likely, multiple -- revisions over the years as the military's missions and needs change, making any decade-long cost-cutting plan tentative, at best.

Every year, the Pentagon presents Congress with a five-year budget blueprint. But the details of those projections change dramatically from year to year, often rendering the previous year's proposal obsolete.

In the same vein, the Defense Department conducts a comprehensive review of its military capabilities and requirements every four years. But shortly after the Pentagon releases that document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, many observers consider it already outdated.

"The Pentagon does do five- and seven-year plans," said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "But it doesn't mean anything. These things are always subject to change, obviously."

Take, for instance, the last decade. No Pentagon planner could have forecast the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which shifted the military's focus to fighting a new kind of enemy.

Since then, the Pentagon's base budget-not including the wars-has doubled as the military poured billions into creating a force prepared to fight in any type of contingency. Programs, such as the Army's ambitious Future Combat Systems, have been canceled with money directed instead at urgent needs such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle.

Morrell acknowledged after Obama's speech the difficulty of planning a decade out, but said doing so is necessary to get the deficit under control.

"We usually do [planning] over the course of five years. That doesn't always come to fruition but you need to have it for planning purposes," Morrell said. "This is an even more extended period of time, but I think in terms of deficit reduction you have to plan long-term to really get at it."

Gates has already pledged over the next five years to move $100 billion within the Pentagon budget to higher-priority items while also cutting $78 billion from the department's top-line over the same period of time. The additional $400 billion in cuts would be in addition to those efforts.

Gates, who learned the details of the White House's deficit-reduction plan during a meeting with Obama on Tuesday, has previously warned that any additional cuts to defense spending levels would be "catastrophic" for the military. But Morrell, who stressed that the $400 billion in savings is a goal, said any reductions will be shaped by a thorough examination of policy and risks.

"Secretary Gates believes the Department of Defense cannot be exempt from efforts to bring federal deficit spending under control," Morrell said. "However, it's important that any reduction in funding be shaped by strategy and policy choices and not a budget and math exercise. The president's direction gets the sequence right."