- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, ALA. (AP) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday the high-seas pirate drama shows why the Pentagon should buy more affordable ships, planes and weapons even if they are not perfect.

“As we saw last week, you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar ship to chase down a bunch of teenage pirates,” Gates said.

Although he has praised the precision training of Navy SEAL snipers who killed three pirate hostage-takers Sunday, the secretary was referring to the imbalance of massive U.S. warships and dazzling weaponry corralling the pirates’ tiny lifeboat. The Somali pirates were armed with automatic weapons and pistols and holding an American cargo ship captain for ransom.

Gates is touring war colleges this week, selling his plan to reorder the Pentagon budget. He wants to cancel some big programs and scale back others.

It was at this same Air Force War College that Gates a year ago accused the service of dragging its feet on sending relatively low-tech surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates said Wednesday that those wars should drive the design and purchase of realistic weapons.

The goal should be larger quantities of well-priced and versatile systems, instead of exquisite machines “so costly and complex that they take forever to build and then only in very limited quantities.”

Gates’ proposed $534 billion defense budget for the coming year would end production of the Air Force’s marquee fighter plane, the F-22 Raptor, a sleek $400 million beauty that has not seen a day of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Gates wants to build more workhorse planes called Joint Strike Fighters, at about $80 million apiece. That program could end up costing $1 trillion to manufacture and maintain 2,443 planes.

The F-22 is a “niche, silver-bullet solution” to a narrow problem, and 187 of them will be plenty, Gates said.

He got no complaint about the F-22 from his audience of students and instructors, and the Air Force leadership has signaled it will support the phase-out. Manufacture of the plane creates jobs in more than 40 states, however, and it is not clear whether Congress will try to keep the program going.

Gates told the group he opposes a congressional push to buy new Air Force refueling planes from two different defense contractors. The Pentagon has been trying for nearly a decade to build a badly needed replacement for the 50-year-old fleet of refueling planes called tankers.

Gates joked that he is “laying my body down across the tracks” by insisting on a leaner tanker buying plan. He plans to try again this summer to pick a manufacturer.

Congress has not begun work on Gates’ budget plan, released earlier this month after weeks of secret strategy sessions. Gates made even top military officers swear in writing that they would not discuss the budget lineup before its release.

The ambitious plan is the product of Gates’ frustration with what he has called narrow thinking by military services and defense contractors too accustomed to ever-swelling defense budgets since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The defense chief, a holdover from the Cabinet of Republican President George W. Bush, has asked members of Congress to look beyond parochial interests in their home districts, and told the Air Force audience he has been pleasantly surprised by a muted response so far. Congress is on a break, and will return next week.

Defense analysts say most of Gates recommendations will probably stick, especially with the endorsement this week of President Barack Obama.

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