WASHINGTON — Already out of Iraq and winding down military involvement in Afghanistan, the United States is confronting the question of how much it needs to spend on its armed services.
Defense spending overall represented about $700 billion of the $3.6 trillion fiscal 2011 federal budget.
It will be a major issue for whoever wins Nebraska's open Senate seat — Democrat Bob Kerrey or Republican Deb Fischer.
Both criticized the looming automatic defense cuts known as sequestration. Both objected to significant decreases in military spending while saying they would look for opportunities to trim.
The two have sparred over whether Republican proposals to cap spending would allow for an adequate national defense.
Kerrey offered more specifics on changes he would make at the Pentagon. He would like to cut billions in overhead and acquisition costs, while prioritizing certain areas of military spending.
Those include replenishing equipment for the National Guard, which has been leaned on heavily for overseas missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kerrey noted that after returning from the front lines, those units are also tapped for domestic missions.
“Our Blackhawk helicopters coming back from Afghanistan were flying up to put out fires up in the Sand Hills,” Kerrey said.
Kerrey said he wants to beef up congressional oversight of the country's intelligence operations, which escape the kind of scrutiny applied to other parts of the budget because they're classified.
He questioned whether all of the $80 billion spent on those operations is really necessary or being used appropriately.
Fischer said every part of the federal budget, including the military, needs to be on the table but said she views national security as the government's No. 1 priority.
“You have to be able to look at everything, and that includes the military, but you also need to make sure that you have the correct information before you, that you follow the advice of the people that are directly affected by it,” she said.
She said it's difficult as a candidate to get into specific areas of military spending that she would either cut or increase.
“Until you're elected ... you really don't have the information available to you,” she said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has suggested a robust increase in the number of ships in the U.S. Navy.
In a World-Herald interview, Fischer made a similar point, saying that sequestration could result in the smallest U.S. Navy since 1915.
“I don't know if that would be the direction that we want to go,” Fischer said.
She said the U.S. may need more ships, in particular, to respond to China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
Kerrey said comparing a dominant modern Navy, with its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, to the fleets of a long-ago era doesn't make much sense, but noted that the Navy faces new and unique threats from terrorists. He cited the attack on the USS Cole.
“You actually might be able to make the case that in some ways we're more vulnerable, but building more ships isn't necessarily going to solve the problem,” Kerrey said.
Another area that could be ripe for cuts is military benefits. Active-duty service members who log 20 years get a pension for the rest of their lives, even if they retire at 38.
Proposals floated last year would switch that guaranteed benefit to more of a 401(k) system. Both Kerrey and Fischer said they would look at potential changes to benefits for future enlistees.
Kerrey noted that the budget will be under pressure from disability benefits, which have already grown and are expected to explode in the coming years for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It just means that the American people have got to be very careful when they get all patriotic and wave the flag and want to go do another war,” Kerrey said.
The two have sparred over GOP budget proposals to cap federal spending at 18 percent of the country's economic output, commonly referred to as gross domestic product.
Kerrey says studies have shown that setting the cap that low won't allow the government to keep performing all its basic functions and keep an adequate military.
Fischer has defended the 18 percent cap as viable.
“It all comes with setting what the priorities are, and I believe in a more limited government,” she said.
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