GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if those cuts do kick in, the Pentagon will be required to shave off about half a trillion dollars. That's on top of more than 450 billion the military is already looking to cut. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta worries about what he calls difficult choices ahead. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports now, there's a dispute over how hard those choices really are.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Pentagon leaders are downright gloomy these days. Listen to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently on Capitol Hill.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: The fact is we're having to cut a half-trillion dollars, almost a half-trillion dollars out of the defense budget. As tough as it is, it's manageable. We can do this in a way that protects our force for the future, but it's going to take us to the edge.
BOWMAN: Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, says Gordon Adams. He worked in the Clinton administration on defense issues. Adams says the Pentagon budget isn't going down. It just won't increase.
GORDON ADAMS: It's not really a cut except in the first two years because they don't get inflation. But in reality, what it really does is simply flatten the defense budget at a historic level, a level that we have not surpassed at any point since the end of the Second World War.
BOWMAN: So what level are we talking about? The Pentagon's annual budget 10 years ago was just under $400 billion. Now, it's about 550 billion.
LARRY KORB: I think it's a gross overreaction when you hear these stories of doom and gloom and all these things.
BOWMAN: Larry Korb is a defense analyst who served in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration.
KORB: At the turn of this century, we accounted for one-third of the world's military expenditures. Now, it's almost half.
BOWMAN: So what we're talking about is the Pentagon isn't getting as much money as it expected. Now the question is where does the Pentagon scale back? It comes down to two big areas: people and military hardware, like weapons. The Army and the Marines want to preserve as many ground troops as they can. The Air Force and the Navy are looking to build more aircraft and ships. In the end, everyone will probably have to lose something. General Ray Ordinario, the Army's top officer, has already said the Army could be cut by at least 20,000 soldiers and end up below 520,000 troops. Some want to cut the Army even more.
NORA BENSAHEL: We bring that down even further to 482,000 troops.
BOWMAN: Nora Bensahel is an analyst with the Center for a New American Security. She helped write a report on military strategy.
BENSAHEL: That was the size of the United States Army before September 11, 2001.
BOWMAN: Cutting troops would free up money for ships and aircraft. She thinks that's a better fit for U.S. defense strategy, which is shifting toward Asia and the Pacific. There's another reason.
BENSAHEL: We try to preserve as much air and naval power as possible primarily because air and naval capabilities really take years, if not decades, to develop.
BOWMAN: She says it's a lot easier to recruit and train ground troops should the country need them. That's not to say that aircraft won't be targeted, too. There's real money there. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs $133 million a piece. The Pentagon plans to buy more than 2,400 of them. The chairman of the Joint of Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, supports the F-35 to a point. What troubles him is that the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps each want their own version of the F-35.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I am concerned about the three variants and whether - as we go forward in this fiscal environment, whether we can afford all three.
BOWMAN: Tom Donnelly, of the American Enterprise Institute, says the military cannot afford not to go after the plane.
TOM DONNELLY: Considering how much money there is in F-35, which is an order of magnitude larger than anything else, you know, it's like Willie Sutton, you have to go where the money is.
BOWMAN: It sounds like Pentagon leaders already are heading in that direction. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.