Gates cuts back projects to bolster Iraq, Afghan missions

McClatchy NewspapersApril 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday recommended ceasing production of the F-22 Raptor jet fighter, cutting back other expensive, high-tech weapons systems and shifting resources into counterinsurgency campaigns such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead of more money for missile defense, future combat systems and bombers to prepare for a possible conventional war against Iran or North Korea, Gates' proposed budget calls for more helicopter crews, reconnaissance and surveillance.

The cuts in lucrative defense contracts, however, are likely to draw the ire of Congress, where lawmakers will fight to retain contracts and defense-related jobs in their districts, especially in an economic crisis.

In addition, critics charge that Gates' proposed $534 billion budget cuts too much of the military's equipment and training for conventional warfare.

Lockheed Martin, which produces the F-22, lobbied for weeks to save the program and now threatens layoffs.

Lockheed could be the beneficiary of Gates' decision, however, for he proposed capping production of the F-22 at 187 and replacing the F-22 with Lockheed Martin's F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter. Gates requested $11.2 billion to build 30 F-35s by September 2010, the end of the 2010 fiscal year. The F-35s would serve the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, unlike the F-22, which is intended solely for the Air Force.

At a news conference, Gates conceded that his budget would be controversial and have many opponents within the military community. The argument of critics is that conventional war weapons take longer to build than the more basic equipment needed for irregular warfare. In addition, the critics say, China, Russia and many developing nations, such as Iran and North Korea, are beefing up their equipment and could become threats to the U.S. or its allies.

"In the absence of a more detailed description of the strategic underpinnings justifying his funding priorities — including an assessment of the level of risk posed to U.S. national security interests — it is difficult to evaluate them in isolation," Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said in a statement.

Gates said that since 9/11, his department's budget hasn't properly reflected the nation's military priorities because most the funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came through supplemental bills, not the department's base budget.

Usually, the department's budget is as much a mission statement as a financial plan. Under the Bush administration, however, some of the biggest costs weren't reflected in the base budget. If troops needed equipment in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, the military services would often request it in a supplemental budget.

Since the Obama administration announced that it would include more of the war costs in the base budget, members of the military have been scurrying to save programs that were easily funded in better economic times.

The department needs a budget that funds "the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years to come, while at the same time providing a hedge against other risks," Gates told reporters.

He called the debate between conventional and irregular warfare "artificial," saying the two threats can overlap. The budget spends 10 percent on irregular warfare needs, 50 percent on traditional fighting and 40 percent for dual purposes, he said.

The proposed budget calls for an additional $11 billion to expand the Army and Marine Corps but halts the expansion of the Air Force and Navy. The plan calls for the Army to expand to 547,000 soldiers — it had 512,000 in January 2007 — but shrink to 45 brigade combat teams from 48 because Gates favors a more streamlined force. He also proposed increasing special operations forces by 2,800.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department will make major cuts in missile defense programs. The budget cuts the department's Missile Defense Agency by $1.4 billion, and it calls for an overall reduction in the missile defense program. In addition, the department won't add ground-based interceptors in Alaska, as once planned.

Gates also proposed cutting the Multiple Kill Vehicle, a staple of missile defense that's intended to design warheads that can intercept and destroy ballistic missiles, because of its "significant technical challenges."

He also eliminated the $26 billion Transformation Satellite program, a secure Air Force communications network, and replacing it with cheaper, new technology.

Gates said he didn't let politics or the economic crisis influence his decision. In some cases, however, politics appeared to at least be a factor in his proposals. Gates proposed building three Navy DDG-1000s, $6 billion, high-tech next-generation destroyers, even though some question whether the Navy needs them. They'd be built in Bath, Maine, he said, where the Obama administration has received support from the state's two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

Usually, the department's budget is presented first to the Office of Management and Budget and gets presidential approval before it's presented to Congress. Gates said, however, that he wanted to explain to the public why he was taking such steps. Indeed, the department couldn't say yet how much cutting conventional programs would affect the overall budget total.

"This is a reform budget, reflecting the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan," Gates said.

Even the president's helicopters were not spared. Gates proposed cutting VH-71 presidential helicopters, which were supposed to include 23 helicopters for the president at $6.5 billion. That program has cost $13 billion and fallen six years behind, Gates said.

The president instead will keep flying in VH-3 presidential helicopters, which are at least 30 years old, Gates said.

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