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Pentagon plans smaller Army, Marines; Scaling back of military prompts GOP criticism

The Pentagon outlined a plan Thursday for slowing the growth of military spending, including cutting the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, retiring older planes and trimming war costs. It drew quick criticism from Republicans, signaling the difficulty of scaling back defense budgets in an election year.

The changes Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta described are numerous but hardly dramatic. They aim to save money by delaying some big-ticket weapons such as a next-generation nuclear-armed submarine, but the basic shape and structure of the military remains the same.

The Army would shrink from a peak of 570,000 to 490,000 within five years, and the Marines would drop by 20,000, to 182,000. Those are considerable declines, but both services will still be slightly larger than on 9/1 1, before they began a decade of war.

Panetta said the administration will ask Congress for $525 billion to run the Pentagon in 2013 -- $6 billion less than the current budget. War costs, which are not considered part of the base budget, would decline to $88 billion, from $115 billion, reflecting the completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The base budget would then increase in each year of the Pentagon's five-year plan, reaching $567 billion in 2017. A year ago, the Pentagon projected 2017 spending to reach $622 billion. The Pentagon counts those reductions in projected future spending as "defense savings."

When President Obama took office in January 2009, the Pentagon's base budget was $513 billion. In 2001, it was $297 billion.

In a bid to pre-empt Republican criticism in an election year, Panetta said the plan begins to shift the Pentagon's focus from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to future challenges in Asia, the Middle East and in cyberspace. More Special Operations forces such as the Navy SEALs who killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden will be available around the world, he said.

Republicans were quick to pounce on the proposed Army and Marine Corps reductions.

"These cuts reflect President Obama's vision of an America that is weakened, not strengthened, by our men and women in uniform," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Among the changes, the Navy would keep a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers but retire seven cruisers earlier than planned. It also would delay purchase of some other ships, including a new Virginia-class submarine. Also, the purchase of F-35 stealth fighter jets, to be fielded by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, would be slowed.

Military pay raises will remain on track until 2015, when the pace of increase will be slowed by an undetermined amount.