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The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, is shown September 26, 2003, in this aerial photo. (Associated Press archives)

A raft of media outlets led coverage of the president's Pentagon budget request with the notion that the Pentagon planned to "reduce the Army to pre-World War II levels."

This is the sound bite that stood in for real analysis. Pundits missed the big picture, arguing over the wisdom of the reductions. The New York Times called the move "prudent realism." The conservative Weekly Standard branded it "deeply unsettling."

When people hear "the Army is being cut to pre-World War II levels," they are thinking about military forces as a whole. But the Air Force didn't even exist in 1940. The Marine Corps has grown exponentially since that earlier era.

After the post- 9/11 spike is trimmed, a force far larger than before World War II remains.

But the bigger problem with the reduction narrative is that the proposed $496 billion for the Department of Defense represents historically sky-high spending.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is planning for big growth in the next few years and assuming Congress will allow it to blow past the painstakingly negotiated Budget Control Act caps.

The Pentagon is not satisfied with wishful thinking. The Overseas Contingency Operations account -- designed to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- is becoming a slush fund to dodge the budget caps the rest of the government is subject to.

There's a placeholder of $80 billion for that account, despite Secretary Chuck Hagel's claim that this is not a "war-footing budget."

What's driving this bloated spending if military forces and pay are getting a shave? Here's a hint: Stock prices for major defense contractors actually rose after the budget "cuts" were announced.

The security environment facing the United States requires neither massive forces nor gold-plated weapons designed for the Cold War.

The best example of the lack of discipline is that the already outsize expenditures on nuclear weapons are actually going up. There's $8.3 billion -- a 7 percent increase -- in the coming year's budget for the nuclear arsenal. Over the next 30 years, maintenance of the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal and delivery systems is projected to cost $1 trillion -- an unconscionable sum for weapons that meet no realistic security threat.

A particularly egregious example is the upgrade to the B-61 nuclear gravity bomb. Each bomb will cost more than its weight in gold, with the program adding up to between $10 billion and $12 billion. Last year, senators, including Dianne Feinstein, aimed to trim funding for the bomb. The administration and House Republicans teamed up to block those efforts.

This year, the administration is asking for even more spending for the gold-plated bomb.

The Pentagon is far from embracing real reform of runaway spending on nuclear warheads, subs, planes and missiles.

The Pentagon and defense contractor allies in Congress also are hesitant to fully take on other lobbyist-defended relics of Cold War style war fighting.

These include the F-35 fighter, a plane that can't even fly and the Littoral Combat Ship, a ship that won't survive serious battle. It is, indeed, the time for prudent realism. But if the Pentagon doesn't have the seriousness to meet the challenges of the moment, clearer-eyed congressional leaders need to step up.

Jon Rainwater is executive director of Oakland-based Peace Action West and the Peace Education Fund.