Some conservatives who welcomed President Obama’s decision to keep Robert M. Gates as defense secretary are already having second thoughts.
Decisions in the first 100 days of the new administration regarding future weapons systems have dismayed members of the Air Force fighter community and others who had considered the former CIA chief one of their own.
Baker Springs, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, described Mr. Gates’ first months under Mr. Obama as “not very good” and a reversion to policies that weakened U.S. defenses.
“We see a consistent chipping away at the defense budget at the top line level, and the structure of the defense budget internally favoring personnel and operations accounts over modernization,” Mr. Springs said. “I think he is lining the department up for another procurement holiday when we just came out of one in the 1990s.”
Supporters of Mr. Gates say he is only following administration priorities in moving money - at a time of huge budget constraints and two ongoing wars - from expensive future weapons systems to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The recommendations made by Secretary Gates represent an important first step in balancing the department’s wants with our nation’s needs,” said Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, who has a big say in Pentagon spending as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. “For far too long, the Defense Department has failed to address these challenges, and I applaud the secretary for conducting this comprehensive review.”
Core defense spending, projected at $534 billion in 2010, will stay relatively flat for the next five years, counting inflation, according to spending outlines from the White House Office of Management and Budget. At a budget briefing Thursday, Pentagon officials declined to discuss spending beyond fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1.
This means that the four military branches will have to cut weapons programs if they are to fund increased personnel and costs for Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Gates announced billions of dollars in weapons cuts at an April 6 news conference.
Anger in the Air Force
His decisions - which still have to survive a congressional gauntlet - upset the Army and sparked a furor in the Air Force.Shortly after Mr. Gates’ announcement, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, a career transport pilot who also flew special operations attack planes, conducted a video conference call with major Air Force commanders around the world and at Air Force Air Combat Command in Langley. Two people who spoke with those participating but asked not to be named to avoid compromising the generals said a number of the generals expressed strong objections to the cuts.
“They were not happy,” said one of those briefed on the call. “They felt a sense of betrayal. They asked, ‘Why is all this money and programs being taken out of the aircraft?’”
A spokeswoman for Gen. Schwartz declined to comment on the conversation.
At the Pentagon, senior spokesman Bryan Whitman said both Gen. Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley agreed with Mr. Gates’ decisions and had published a letter to that effect.
A former senior official who worked with Mr. Gates under the Bush administration but asked not to be named because he now works in the defense industry, said Mr. Gates appears to favor the advice of civilian advisers over that of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.