WASHINGTON — Even as the Pentagon makes more than $450 billion in budget cuts over the coming decade, spending on the military's cyber programs and elite counterterrorism forces is likely to remain stable or even increase, the Pentagon's second-ranking official said in an Associated Press interview.
William Lynn, whose last day in office is Wednesday, said that while no spending-cut decisions have been made there are strong indications that more investment in cyber will be needed as the Obama administration seeks ways to better protect critical information networks at home and abroad.
And even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, there is likely to be a continuing high demand for U.S. forces trained to counter terrorist threats, Lynn said. These are so-called special operations units such as the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
Lynn is stepping down from the No. 2 job at the Pentagon to be replaced by Ashton Carter, who previously was the Defense Department's top weapons buyer.
Although the Pentagon already is committed to cutting more than $450 billion in projected spending over 10 years, the reductions could reach double that amount. This summer's deficit reduction agreement in Congress set up a special bipartisan committee to come up with $1.5 trillion in government savings. If it fails, or Congress rejects its proposals, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion would begin in the 2013 budget year, with half coming from defense.
Top defense leaders and military commanders discussed the budget issues in two days of meetings last week. And while Lynn stressed that no decisions were made, he said commanders got a good idea of the missions the Pentagon wants to protect and those that are likely to be targeted for cuts. He said the projected total cut of at least $450 billion is so large that simply killing a major weapons program will not solve the problem.
"There's no single program big enough to meet the number," Lynn said in the interview Friday in his Pentagon office. "It is very, very hard to exclude broad areas and get to the number." Thus, it will become necessary to shrink the size of the military, scale back work on new weapons and consider cuts in pay and benefits. At risk of reductions, he said, are health care programs for both current Defense Department employees and retirees.
"It's basic economics. If you don't address all aspects of this you aren't going to be able to deal with a problem of this magnitude," he said.
Lynn said it is unlikely that special operations forces would get cut, although the rate of projected growth — roughly 5 percent a year — may slow.
The head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, told a House committee last month that special operations units are the "highest return-on-investment military force," not only to go after terrorists but also to help other countries develop their own defenses against terrorism.
Over the past decade these elite units have been focused heavily on Iraq and Afghanistan, to the exclusion of other areas of the world where McRaven thinks a quiet U.S. presence can be invaluable in "building trust, engendering confidence, and assuring host nation forces of our support and reliability."
On cyber, Lynn said that while the spending isn't as great as on larger programs, the funding is likely to grow as officials work to shore up networks from intrusions by hackers and cybercriminals.
Administration officials have made it clear that the threat is escalating at a dramatic rate, as federal systems are probed and attacked millions of times a day.
"The technologies are getting more destructive and there's the likelihood that more and more dangerous actors will acquire these technologies eventually, so we need to develop (a) plan to counter that," he said.
Of particular concern, Lynn said, are rogue nations and terror groups who are increasingly looking to acquire destructive technologies that can take down the systems that control critical infrastructure, such as the power grid or financial networks.
Terrorists and hostile nations, he said, "have not been as active in the cyber area generally, but there is some suggestion that they've talked about it."
And he said officials have seen evidence of other destructive software, such as the Stuxnet worm that attacked the Iranian uranium enrichment facility in Natanz last year. Lynn would not detail the threats, but said the Pentagon must improve its ability to defend military networks and work to extend those protections to the defense industrial base.
There is currently a pilot program with about 20 defense contractors, and officials are reviewing it now to see if it can continue and grow.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP