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Gates wants to drop $14 billion Marine landing-craft program

By Craig Whitlock and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 10:54 PM

A long-troubled $14 billion program to build a landing craft for the Marine Corps is destined for the chopping block, defense officials and analysts said Wednesday, part of $100 billion in savings that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has pledged to squeeze from the Pentagon's budget.

Gates is scheduled to meet with congressional leaders Thursday to outline how he intends to save the $100 billion over the next five years by cutting weapons programs, Pentagon overhead costs and other portions of the Defense Department's massive bureaucracy. Gates announced in June that he would press the military services to find the savings with the incentive that they would be able to reinvest the money in programs essential to the current war effort and military modernization.

"The secretary will not only announce how much money we have saved and where we have saved it, but what new investments this will allow us to make," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon's spokesman. "This will be as much about investments as cuts."

His push to impose thriftiness on the Pentagon is part of a strategy to protect the military's budget from deficit hawks and others on Capitol Hill. Even some Republican leaders - traditionally fierce supporters of the military - have recently suggested that the Pentagon will no longer be immune from efforts to shrink the ballooning federal deficit.

Gates has warned against cutting the level of defense spending, saying the Pentagon needs to increase its budget by a few percentage points each year to safeguard national security.

Analysts said that if Gates has his way, the Pentagon budget will rise slightly in 2012 to about $554 billion, excluding the costs of fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That would represent about a $12 billion decline from what the White House had projected in a long-term defense spending plan last year. The White House will unveil the precise figure next month.

"By my reading, this is not a cut in buying power," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington County-based think tank that tracks military procurement. "It is clear from these changes that it is easier to find savings by cutting weapons systems than it is to closing bases or reducing military benefits."

Defense officials and analysts said they expected Gates to announce Thursday that he will kill the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a $14 billion program to develop an amphibious landing craft that one analyst called "a tank on water skis."

The landing craft has been on the drawing board for two decades, and the Marines have sunk $3 billion into the project. It has hit repeated delays in testing, and projected costs have soared. The lead contractor is General Dynamics, based in Falls Church.

The vehicle is designed to enable Marines to reach a coastline from as far as 25 miles offshore. But Gates and other skeptics have questioned whether the project is still relevant given the changing nature of warfare. Although the Marines historically have trained for amphibious landings, they have fought almost exclusively on land in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Clearly, the vehicle has not passed its tests," said T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel and senior research fellow at the National Defense University. He said it makes more sense for the Marines to modernize the amphibious assault vehicle used reliably for decades.Other defense officials and analysts said they hope Gates would make good on his pledge to reduce the Pentagon's dependence on contractors and trim benefits programs that have swelled in recent years. Gates has said that soaring health-care costs, especially for military retirees, are "eating us alive" but that Congress has rejected his efforts to scale back.

"He's trying to make sure the Department of Defense doesn't turn into a benefits shop that occasionally kills a terrorist," said Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps general and a member of the Defense Business Board, which has advised Gates on his spending plans.

whitlockc@washpost.com jaffeg@washpost.com

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