Hill Response to Plans Pleases Pentagon Chief

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

FORT RUCKER, Ala., April 14 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday that he has been "pleasantly surprised" by the response from lawmakers to his plans for shifting billions of dollars in Pentagon spending toward programs of immediate benefit to today's wars.

"It seems to me that a number of the responses have been thoughtful, and [lawmakers] have been willing to take this seriously and in the vein it was intended," Gates told reporters traveling with him.

The secretary, however, noted that Congress will not return to Washington until next week and that it might be premature to judge the response to his sweeping proposals. "I don't know whether I am in the eye of the storm," he quipped.

Lawmakers have bemoaned some of his proposed changes, such as halting production of the F-22 fighter jet at 187 planes. Gates's case, however, got a boost this week when the Air Force's top general and its civilian secretary said the service needs only 187 of the planes.

The planned cuts are balanced by increases elsewhere in the budget, which would grow by 4 percent, to $534 billion in 2010.

The changes also are designed to address shortfalls in Afghanistan, where commanders have expressed a desire for more intelligence and surveillance systems, such as unmanned planes, to track insurgents. The Pentagon similarly has struggled since the early days of the Afghanistan war to fulfill commanders' requests for more helicopters to move troops and supplies in the country, where roads are often poor or nonexistent.

To meet the demand, Gates is proposing spending an additional $500 million on new helicopter crews and maintenance teams. On Tuesday, the secretary visited Fort Rucker, where many of those helicopter pilots and crews would be trained.

Over the next several days, Gates will speak to officers at the Army, Navy and Air Force war colleges, where he plans to present his broader vision for changing the military. Gates said that in particular he will stress the need to be ready for what the Pentagon is calling "complex, hybrid wars" in which adversaries meld guerrilla tactics with more conventional weapons such as antitank guided missiles.

He also wants to shift some of the Pentagon bureaucracy's focus from preparing for the future to the more immediate needs of troops in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq. "It is this broad set of ideas that I want to talk . . . about instead of the budget dollars," he said.

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