Gates says Pentagon will settle for smaller budget

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon can live with a smaller budget this year than the Obama administration originally requested, but the total — not counting war costs — cannot be less than $540 billion, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday.

That is about $9 billion less than the White House first requested.

Gates said that Congress’ failure to pass a 2011 budget — five months into the fiscal year — is forcing the Pentagon to stick to last year’s lower spending level. Those limits, he said, could turn into a crisis if they are not fixed soon. Gates met with key lawmakers for lunch Monday, but he said it’s not clear yet what they will do on the 2011 budget.

Laying out the 2012 defense budget, Gates said he is seeking enough money to maintain 98,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, despite the Obama administration’s insistence that it will begin to gradually withdraw forces this July. Gates said that while it’s a certainty that the troop level will come down, it made more sense to request stable funding because the administration doesn’t know yet how many troops they will need.

Military leaders say the troop reduction will be based on the security situation in Afghanistan.

The 2012 budget request includes about $118 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That amount is substantially less than the 2011 request of about $160 billion, largely due to the ongoing withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

The 2012 budget also provides $12.8 billion to train and equip the Afghan security forces, which maintains the training at current levels. Officials have said they need more than the current goal of 305,600 army and police, but the budget provides no additional money to support any growth in the training program.

There are currently about 270,000 Afghan security forces, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to announce his next target for growth in coming weeks. The U.S. and NATO have pressed other nations to provide training, but they are still short about 740 trainers.

Gates spoke to reporters while presenting the administration’s defense spending plan for 2012, which begins October 1.

He also warned that he will pursue all potential legal moves to eliminate funding for the alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Cutting the extra engine, he said, will save $3 billion over the life of the program.