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Defense chief warns of "crisis" over funding

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that Congress was causing a "crisis on my doorstep" by failing to approve Pentagon spending, inaction that could lead to a funding shortfall and hurt the military.

U.S. lawmakers have not passed the fiscal year 2011 defense appropriations bill and the Pentagon, like the rest of the federal government, is operating under a stopgap measure that keeps funding at 2010 levels.

Gates, in comments made public by the Pentagon on Thursday, took aim at lawmakers who have voiced opposition to the Obama administration's plans to trim defense spending from 2012 through 2016.

"It's one thing to talk about (fiscal year 2012) and then to express concerns about something that may or may not happen in four or five years, but I have a crisis on my doorstep," Gates said.

"Frankly, that's how you hollow out a military even in wartime. It means ... fewer flying hours, fewer steaming days, cuts in training for home-stationed ground forces, cuts in maintenance and so on."

Gates said congressional inaction would effectively force the Pentagon to operate with $23 billion less than Obama requested for the Pentagon in the 2011 fiscal year, which runs through the end of September.

"This Congress would be responsible for that (shortfall)," he said.

BUDGET BATTLE AHEAD

Defense spending is likely to be one of the main battlegrounds for Obama after he sends his fiscal 2012 budget proposal to Congress the week of February 14

The Defense Department accounts for 19 percent of U.S. federal spending and roughly half of discretionary, non-mandated spending -- making it a target for lawmakers looking for ways to slash the gaping budget deficit.

But digging deeply into defense funding is politically dicey, particularly with wars ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many members of Congress have also balked at Obama's plans to trim arms programs that provide jobs in their districts, despite Republican calls to rein in government spending.

On Wednesday, a powerful U.S. Republican lawmaker criticized the Obama administration's to cut $78 billion from the Pentagon's core $550 billion-plus spending plan from 2012 through 2016.

Howard "Buck" McKeon, the new chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said he could not ask wartime U.S. forces "to do more with less."

Gates suggested that criticism was meaningless without action on the 2011 funding measure.

"My question is about the seriousness of those who are worried about reductions to the defense budget, and I think they can demonstrate that seriousness by passing a defense appropriations bill," Gates said.

About $6 billion of the savings would come from plans to cut up to 47,000 troops from the Army and Marines starting in 2015, after Afghan forces are scheduled to take the lead on security in that country.

Gates defended the decision, saying the reductions of troop levels were far enough out in the future "that if our assumptions about what the world is like prove to be not correct, there's plenty of time to adjust."

Gates has proposed to kill the Marine Corps' $13.2 billion expeditionary fighting vehicle (EFV), a General Dynamics Corp landing craft program.

He also would end procurement of Raytheon Co "SLAMRAAM" surface-to-air missiles and delay the purchase of 124 radar-evading Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter aircraft over the next five years.

In addition, Gates would freeze civilian personnel levels in the department through fiscal 2013 as part of the administration's attempt to cut the federal deficit. (Additional reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jackie Frank)

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