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Scrapping the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program seems unlikely, despite the high cost of the next-generation warplanes.

AP

With two wars winding down, the Pentagon's $650-billion annual budget offers tempting but politically risky targets for spending slashers duelling it out over the U.S. debt ceiling.

Defence is by far the biggest discretionary chunk in the U.S. federal budget. But cutting defence spending is a political minefield. Every base has a powerful constituency. Every shiny new weapon is backed by a gaggle of powerful lobbyists and dire warnings that cuts mean vulnerabilities and jobs lost. And with tens of thousands of "wounded warriors," cutting veterans' benefits is even more politically dangerous.

No president - even one who reached the Oval Office on a pledge to get out of Iraq - can afford to seem "soft" on defence. Nevertheless, the Pentagon faces the axe.

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President Barack Obama has called for $400-billion in cuts - over 12 years. Serious budget cutters want far more. Among the most tempting targets are these big-ticket items.

F-35s

Tens of billions in savings - just for cutting a few hundred warplanes - is the untested claim of those targeting the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It's the trillion-dollar warplane - the most expensive Pentagon project ever. But years late, the promise has faded of a multi-role warplane that would replace half a dozen aging types of fighters and bombers for the navy, air force and marines, and serve a huge export market. Instead of money-saving variants of a single basic design, the F-35 will cost 30 per cent more to fly than the older warplanes it replaces. The United States wants 2,443 F-35s. Close allies have ordered 700 more, including 65 for Canada. With thousands of aging fighters nearing their final flights, scrapping the entire F-35 program seems unlikely. But big cuts may be in the offing. Perversely, that could drive up the per-plane cost sky high for small buyers such as Canada.

Troops

Bringing home tens of thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan saves some money, but actually cutting the size of the army, navy and air force generates huge savings. Current plans call for trimming 47,000 troops. That's a tiny fraction of America's 1.45-million men and women in uniform. Another 800,000 are part-time soldiers, in the reserves and national guard. Reducing future enlistment is politically safer than actually cutting serving soldiers. And cutting deployments overseas is far easier than closing bases at home. Estimates vary but, on average, a soldier based overseas (but not in a war zone) costs $500,000 annually.

Carrier battle groups

America has 11 mighty nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft supercarriers, each one surrounded by a fleet of cruisers, destroyers, frigates, resupply ships and a nuclear-attack submarine or two. With more warplanes than most entire countries, each battle group alone is more powerful than any other navy on Earth. New ones, even bigger and more expensive, are on the way. The new supercarrier Gerald R. Ford, due to join the navy in 2015, will cost $5.1-billion, not including warplanes, it's fleet of escorts and operating costs over a half-century life. Eventually, the U.S. Navy wants 11 Ford-class ships to replace all 11 of the existing supercarriers. While the new carriers may actually be less expensive to deploy - with significantly smaller crews - even Robert Gates, the recently retired defence secretary, questioned whether America still needs 11 carrier groups. Replacing the existing 11 with seven of the new ones would save hundreds of billions over the next five decades.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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