Area lawmakers say Cannon unlikely to be impacted by defense cuts

Sharna Johnson

Cannon Air Force Base is unlikely to be impacted by proposed cuts to the nation’s defense budget, according to area lawmakers.

For the first time in more than a decade defined by costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon announced plans Thursday to freeze its ballooning budget, forcing the services to shrink the Army and Marines and increase health care premiums for military retirees and their families.

Among items on the hit list were a $13 billion plan to buy the Marines amphibious assault vehicles from General Dynamics Corp. called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, delay of the Marine version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an entire military headquarters in Norfolk, Va., called U.S. Joint Forces Command, and cutting back on the number of general officers that staff the Pentagon.

Gates unveiled the plan, which is reportedly aimed at staving off potentially deeper cuts by the White House or Congress by showing that the Pentagon is taking seriously a call to rein in the nation’s deficit.

But Cannon and its mission appears to be untouched in early versions of savings measures.

“The weapons systems targeted are not bound for Cannon, so on a first cut, no, (we don’t anticipate an impact on Cannon),” said Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

“But we are still getting details… We’re fairly confident that Cannon will get what it needs.”

The sentiments were echoed by other lawmakers who agree, while no one knows what may still come, Cannon won’t feel the cuts as they stand right now.

“We expect to receive more information regarding the proposed cuts to the military budget next week, but do not foresee a big impact on Cannon and its special operations mission,” said Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall D-N.M.

And Cannon’s new mission — transitioned from a fighter wing to a special operations command in 2007 — may be what sets it apart from other military groups set to be trimmed.

“It is difficult to determine the precise impact of the defense cuts until the Secretary’s recommendations are crafted into legislation and we see what Congress has the opportunity to vote on,” said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.

“However, Secretary Gates has made it clear that cuts will be made to out-of-date weapons systems and inefficient administrative practices as opposed to the special operations work of the airmen at Cannon Air Force Base.”

However military personnel across the board could feel the pinch.

The plan assumes that Congress will agree to some $7 billion in health care reforms for military families. Gates has long argued that benefits provided under the military system, known as TRICARE, are too generous. For example, he said, the basic family plan costs only $460 a year — a fee that hasn’t been increased since 1995 and would cost $5,000 a year for civilian federal workers.

Gates said he wants military retirees under the age of 65 to pay “modest” increases to fees.

Similar Pentagon spending reform plans have been defeated in the past, with lawmakers fiercely protective of any program that benefits troops.

Other savings to cover the $78 billion would be found by freezing civilian pay, cutting the size of the general officer corps and other bureaucratic steps.

The Pentagon says it can stop asking for annual budget increases in 2015, adjusting its spending only for inflation. The last time the Pentagon’s budget went down was in 1998.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that projections about what the world will look like so far in the future have a troubled track record.

But the Defense Department is “not exempt” from belt-tightening just because of its charge to defend the nation, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.