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Defense officials press Congress to back Pentagon spending plans

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior defense officials urged lawmakers on Wednesday to accept Pentagon plans to cut troop levels and weapons systems to meet tight federal budgets, saying excessive tinkering could increase risk to the military and leave it poorly prepared for war.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate panel that budget caps requiring nearly a trillion dollars in Pentagon spending cuts over a decade made it impossible to keep the current military force "adequately ready and modernized."

"Readiness is our main concern, as it must be for anyone who cares about our national security and the men and women who defend it," Hagel told an Appropriations Committee panel. "So we made a strategic decision to reduce the size of our force to ensure our troops are trained, ready, capable."

Hagel's remarks came as the House of Representatives began debating a 2015 defense appropriations bill that includes a Pentagon base budget of $490.7 billion but shifts funds to save weapons at the expense of maintenance and training. The White House said this week it "strongly opposes" the House bill.

In its budget proposal for the 2015 fiscal year beginning in October, the Pentagon proposed cutting the size of the Army to between 440,000 and 450,000, down from the current 520,000.

It also said it would reduce the size of the Marine Corps and eliminate popular weapons systems like the A-10 "Warthog" close air support aircraft and the high-altitude U-2 spy plane.

But lawmakers have resisted many of the cuts, with panels in the House and Senate proposing competing alternatives that would save some of the weapons systems and make spending reductions elsewhere, mainly affecting readiness.

"Our efforts to reshape and reform the military continue to be rejected," Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate hearing.

"We have infrastructure that we don't need and with your support, we ought to be able to divest. We have legacy weapon systems that we can't afford to sustain and with your support, we ought to be able to retire," Dempsey said.

"Failing to act on these issues ... will force us into an unbalanced level of cuts to our readiness and modernization."

Dempsey added unless Congress changes the law, the Pentagon will face even deeper cuts in the 2016 fiscal year, making the reforms proposed this year even more critical.

"The risks will become, in my judgment, unmanageable," he said. "This is a reckless and unnecessary path."

Beginning debate on the House's defense appropriations bill, Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen said the measure included funds for a 1.8 percent military pay raise, for 12 more Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft and M1 Abrams tank upgrades, spending opposed by the White House.

The administration said in a statement this week it was concerned that without "meaningful compensation reforms and other cost-saving measures ... there is an increased risk to the department's ability to implement the president's defense strategy."

(Editing by Diane Craft)

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