Defense Chief Proposes Weapons Cuts

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday announced a number of cuts to big programs in the Pentagon's upcoming budget. He did, however, call for more money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. For weeks the Pentagon rumor mill has been churning. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that big budget cuts were coming. He told Congress that, quote, "the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing."

SHAPIRO: Yesterday was decision day and Gates did announce cuts to a number of big programs, but he also called for more money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NPR's defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Let's start with the cuts. Secretary Gates says he wants to fundamentally shift the way the Pentagon does business and stop spending billions on conventional programs designed to fight an enemy that no longer exists. So the Pentagon's new budget reigns in spending on missile defense, it cuts Navy shipbuilding programs, stops production of the F-22 fighter jet, and scraps the $26 billion transformational satellite program.

Then there's the new fleet of presidential helicopters - a program that gained notoriety recently when Senator John McCain pointed out the new choppers were so over-budget, they now cost as much as Air Force One. Secretary Gates says the helicopters were supposed to cost 6.5 billion.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): Today the program is estimated to cost over $13 billion, has fallen six years behind schedule, and runs the risk of not delivering the requested capability.

KELLY: So Gates says it should be terminated. Still, some of the cuts were not as deep as defense contractors had feared and Gates wants to expand some programs, in particular those that support the wars the U.S. military is currently fighting. For example, Gates wants more money for Predator and Reaper drones - the unmanned planes that circle high above Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But Gates denies that he is prioritizing current wars at the expense of future threats. The reality, he says, is more complicated.

Sec. GATES: Most of the people that I talk to are now increasingly talking about a spectrum of conflict in which you may face at the same time an insurgent with an AK-47 and his supporting element with a highly sophisticated ballistic missile.

KELLY: Reorienting the Pentagon towards that type of scenario, what Gates calls complex hybrid warfare, is a huge challenge, not least because support is deeply entrenched for some of the programs Gates would like to cut. Recent history offers a long line of defense secretaries who've tried to kill a weapon's program only to see it resurrected by Congress in the final budget negotiations.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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Gates Calls For Shift In Defense Spending Priorities

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a news briefing at the Pentagon Monday. i

At a Pentagon news briefing Monday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he is shifting priorities and steering resources toward the wars the U.S. military is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a news briefing at the Pentagon Monday.

At a Pentagon news briefing Monday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he is shifting priorities and steering resources toward the wars the U.S. military is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that he wants to "profoundly reform" the way the Pentagon does business, calling for more money for unmanned spy planes, helicopters and other items for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His new budget would eliminate a multibillion dollar satellite program and end production of the F-22 fighter jet.

Gates' announcement marks a shift in priorities — steering more resources toward the wars the U.S. military is fighting today as opposed to conventional wars the U.S. might fight in the future.

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

Gates conceded that he will likely be criticized for focusing too much on current conflicts and not enough on future threats. But that's not the case, he said.

"It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to overensure against a remote or diminishing risk — or, in effect, to run up the score in a capability where the United States is already dominant — is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in and improve capabilities in areas where we are underinvested and potentially vulnerable," he said. "That is a risk I will not take."

Gates wants more money for mental health care as well as for helicopters, which are urgently needed in Afghanistan. And he wants to maximize the production of unmanned spy planes, like the Predator and Reaper drones, which he says "will represent a 62 percent increase in capability over the current level and 127 percent from a year ago."

Gates also says he's committed to maintaining U.S. air superiority. "Therefore, I will recommend increasing the buy of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from the 14 aircraft bought in FY09, to 30 in FY10," he said.

But not all fighter jet programs will be so lucky: Gates announced he wants to end production of the F-22. He is also scrapping a multibillion dollar satellite program and cutting the budget for missile defense.

Over time, Gates wants to cut the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10, and he's scaling back the Army's modernization program.

None of these decisions will be popular with the big defense contractors, such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing. Nor will they be popular with lawmakers whose districts house weapons production plants and all the jobs that support them.

Gates acknowledged that while Monday's announcement represents an end to months of internal Pentagon debate, it's only the opening salvo in the budget battle that will play out across Washington in the coming weeks.

"My hope is that, as we have tried to do here in this building, that the members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interests of the nation as a whole," he said.

Even before Gates' news conference finished, members of Congress were busy e-mailing reporters their reactions. Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, called the new budget a "good-faith effort." But Skelton noted pointedly that "the buck stops with Congress," which gets to "decide whether to support these proposals."

It does look as though Gates will have at least one committed and powerful ally in Sen. John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's calling the Pentagon plan "a major step in the right direction."

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