Draft Defense Department budget avoids weapons cuts, adds aircraft

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By Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Obama administration's 2011 defense budget avoids the controversial weapons cuts of last year, according to a draft copy, and continues to shift modest amounts of money to weapons programs such as helicopters, unmanned planes and Special Operations units that are in heavy use Afghanistan and Iraq.

The more than $700 billion budget will be released Monday with a congressionally mandated review of defense spending. That review calls on the Pentagon to focus more attention on wars in which enemy forces hide among the populace and use roadside bombs and hit-and-run ambushes to attack U.S. troops. The Quadrennial Defense review also predicts a future dominated by "hybrid" wars, in which traditional states will fight more like guerrillas and insurgents will arm themselves with increasingly sophisticated technology, such as antitank weapons and missiles.

The bold pronouncements in the review, however, won't drive big changes in the Pentagon budget, which is dominated by massive weapons programs with powerful constituencies in Congress and the defense industry.

"I think the review gets the diagnosis right on the big external challenges facing the Defense Department, but at the end of the day, the preexisting mismatch between the strategy and the [budget] program still exists," said Jim Thomas, who played a key role in writing the last quadrennial review and is now a vice president at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Despite the language about new threats, a December draft of the quadrennial review doesn't mention the F-35 fighter jet program, which remains one of the largest and most expensive programs in the history of the military and has been in development for more than a decade.

Although Obama has proposed a three-year freeze on federal spending, he has exempted the Pentagon from these limits, allowing an increase of about 2 percent when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are stripped out of the budget. In addition to the more than $700 billion budget, the president will also ask for about $33 billion to pay for the surge of about 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

Much of the new spending in the 2011 budget will be directed to weapons programs in heavy use in Afghanistan. The budget calls on the Air Force to double the number of MQ-9 Reapers, which are unmanned planes that can carry precision bombs, over the next several years. The extra planes will allow the Air Force to increase from about 37 to 65 the number of long-range, unmanned surveillance aircraft that it can keep airborne during combat missions.

The Army and Marine Corps will get almost $10 billion for helicopters, which have been essential to moving troops across Afghanistan and have been in short supply since the beginning of the war in 2001. The budget also calls for increasing spending for Special Operations forces by about 6 percent, to $6.3 billion. Those forces have played a central role in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, where they have trained indigenous counterterrorism troops.

The Pentagon's quadrennial review will formally scrap its past construct for determining the size of the force, which held that the military should be able to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. The review argues that the Pentagon today faces a much broader array of potential threats, including terrorism, stabilization missions and guerrilla wars, and acknowledges that in the near term, the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan will play the major role in determining the size of the U.S. military.

In contrast with last year, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates eliminated or curtailed several expensive conventional weapons programs, including the F-22 fighter jet, the new budget includes no major weapons cancellations and is likely to draw plaudits from the defense industry. For years defense industry executives have predicted that spending would be curtailed.

"You have to wonder whether the tough year is ever going to come," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank.

The lack of big weapons cuts is causing some outcry from congressional Democrats. "I don't think that we have to protect military contractors. And I want to make that distinction very clearly," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.). "I do not think the entire defense budget should be exempted."


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