Big cuts to the Pentagon budget that once would have been unthinkable were openly discussed Wednesday on Capitol Hill as lawmakers summoned a panel of experts to weight in on the White House's newly released 2016 defense budget request.
This year's budget battle will be exceptionally intense because a two-year deal in 2013 that eased the impact of the spending caps known as sequestration will expire when the 2016 fiscal year begins in October.
If lawmakers fail to reach a new agreement to extend that relief, the Defense Department will have to make major across-the-board cuts to planned spending.
That is forcing lawmakers to scrutinize the military budget in search of big-ticket items and lower-priority programs to target.
"The weapons system that we are planning on building right now, we can't afford," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said at Wednesday's hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. "Something's got to go."
The expert witnesses called to testify all had suggestions on how to save money.
"The obvious answer is the F-35," said Nora Bensahel, a military analyst with American University, referring to the futuristic weapons system slated to replace large parts of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps tactical aircraft fleets.
"That is the procurement program that is eating the defense budget alive," she said.
She did not advocate scrapping the program, but said the Air Force "doesn't need as many of them as it says it needs."
The Navy's controversial littoral combat ship also came in for blunt criticism. Tom Donnelly, a defense expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said the LCS is "the wrong weapon" that resulted from "bad analysis of mission and needs."
Several experts agreed that reducing personnel costs, which make up about one-third of the base defense budget, will be central to any long-term plan to reduce Pentagon spending.
They pointed to the new proposals from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which call for reducing the size of the current retirement benefit and offering new contributions to 401(k)-style accounts for troops who leave before reaching the 20-year service milestone.
"They've got a sound approach there — it certainly could use some tweaks and improvements from Congress," said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.
However, Harrison and others noted that those changes alone will not bring defense spending within the sequestration budget caps mandated under current law and suggested further reductions in personnel costs will require cutting the size of the total force.
Several experts suggested that reducing Army active-duty strength is the least harmful option. But the likely easiest path to that end — shrinking units garrisoned in Europe — is looking less attractive these days in the face of Russia's aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
"There are significant choices that can change just in the course of a year," said Ryan Crotty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggesting lawmakers consider the cost-saving benefits of trimming troop strength in the reserve components and potentially moving important capabilities out of the active-duty military.
"If you are going to start thinking about big cuts, you're going to have to start thinking about big moves," Crotty said. "Maybe the cyber mission needs to move out of the active component and into the Guard and reserve."
Making the right budget cuts will require a fundamental rethinking of how the U.S. military fights wars, the experts said. That means less emphasis on conventional ground forces and short-range tactical aircraft, and more investment in new technologies in areas like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber warfare and long-range guided missiles.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., criticized his own committee for failing to support the Pentagon's request for base closures. The top brass wants to shut down dozens of underused military facilities across the country, but lawmakers are resistant to do anything that might hurt jobs and the local economy of their home districts.
"We look incompetent, we look selfish, we look weak," Cooper said.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said perhaps Congress should consider a "war tax" because the current budget system cannot support the kind of spending that many people want.
"I just don't think we can continue to go down this road, quite frankly, without a [financial] collapse," Jones said. "Maybe we need to debate a war tax or some type of taxation to make sure that we are not cheating our defenses from being strong enough to defend this country."
Behsahel said explaining to the American people why defense spending is important should be a high priority, especially after years of unpopular wars.
"My mother used to say to me, 'Why can't we defend the United States for $500 billion a year?' It's an excellent question," she said. "Saying not everything looks like the wars of the past 13 years is an important step."