By Greg Jaffe and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates outlined sweeping changes to the defense budget Monday that would shift billions of dollars in Pentagon spending away from elaborate weapons toward programs more likely to benefit troops in today's wars.
The proposal by Gates amounts to a radical change in the way the Pentagon buys weapons. For decades, the United States has spent trillions of dollars on weapons programs that strove for revolutionary leaps but often were delivered years late and billions of dollars over budget. In proposing his 2010 budget, which is likely to face stiff resistance from Congress, Gates emphasized that he wanted to change the "priorities of America's defense establishment."
The effort to pare back weapons programs that Gates derided as "truly in the exquisite category" reflects a growing recognition in the Pentagon that the days of soaring defense budgets are over. And it highlights Gates's long-stated desire to increase spending on surveillance systems and other relatively low-tech weapons that are best suited for guerrilla or irregular war, which has traditionally been an industry backwater. "I'm just trying to get the irregular guys to have a seat at the table and to institutionalize some of the needs they have," he said.
To bolster the Afghan war effort, he would spend $2 billion more on intelligence and surveillance programs to track insurgents and $500 million to field more helicopters and an additional 2,800 Special Operations personnel focused on counterterrorism. The $534 billion plan represents a $20 billion increase over 2009.
Among the weapons taking the biggest hits are the Navy's DDG 1000 destroyer, a stealthy ship whose cost has ballooned over the past decade. The Navy will purchase only three of the advanced ships and then revert to building the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that have been a mainstay of the fleet for years.
Gates recommended halting production of the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet at 187 planes -- four more than the current number -- and killing the new presidential helicopter program.
The Pentagon proposal also would dramatically cut back the Army's ambitious Future Combat Systems program, which consists of a network of advanced vehicles, unmanned surveillance aircraft and battlefield sensors. Specifically, Gates said that he is canceling the $87 billion in the program set aside to develop a new generation of light armored vehicles that were meant to replace Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 72-ton tanks. These advanced vehicles, which have been in development for almost a decade, were supposed to rely on better surveillance technology to compensate for their lack of armor.
The huge toll that low-tech roadside bombs have taken on Army and Marine Corps troops in Iraq and Afghanistan led Gates to conclude that such an approach was not feasible. Instead of pouring more money into the futuristic vehicles, Gates indicated that he was more comfortable spending money on the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, which is based on a South African design that dates to the early 1990s.
He also set aside $2 billion for surveillance technology, such as Predator unmanned surveillance planes and sensors that have proved their worth tracking down insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another $11 billion is being reallocated within the budget to pay for a planned increase of 65,000 troops to the Army's ranks and an additional 27,000 Marines.
In unveiling his new priorities for the Pentagon, Gates acknowledged that he would probably face opposition from lawmakers eager to protect jobs in their districts. "My hope is that members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole," he said.
Gates demanded unprecedented secrecy when developing the budget over the past six weeks. Senior generals throughout the department were required to sign non-disclosure agreements. In order to prevent leaks, Gates won special permission from the president to withhold his decisions from the White House's Office of Management and Budget until after the budget proposal was formally announced. "We wanted to ensure that the changes were presented in full context," a senior Pentagon official said.
The initial response on Capitol Hill was restrained, reflecting Gates's credibility among Republicans, the president's popularity and the fact that the midterm congressional elections are still 18 months away. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) called the Gates plan "a good-faith effort." But he also asserted Congress's authority over how defense money is spent. "The buck stops with Congress," Skelton said in a statement.
The cuts will undoubtedly be painful for communities such as Marietta, Ga., where about 2,000 Lockheed Martin workers assemble the F-22. The program employs about 25,000 people around the country, said Rep. Tom Price (R), whose Georgia district includes the Lockheed Martin plant. "This decision will not only cost thousands of jobs at a critical time, it is detrimental to the country's national defense capabilities," Price said. "The president's priorities are deeply flawed."
Similarly, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) bemoaned the decision to stop building F-22s. "This would result in the loss of thousands of jobs in Connecticut," he said.
Gates said he was concerned about the impact his changes would have on companies and workers, but he noted that many of the job cuts would be offset by increases in other areas. For example, even as the number of employees working on the F-22 declined, tens of thousands more workers would be hired to build the F-35, a more affordable and slightly less advanced stealth fighter. Gates said he planned to accelerate production of the plane to buy 30 in 2010, up from a planned purchase of 14 this year.