Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates Monday unveiled a sweeping $534 billion budget proposal that shifts priorities from conventional warfare to counterinsurgency, but it is already provoking opposition from some key lawmakers worried about losing more jobs in a deep recession.

The budget for 2010 would cap production of the F-22 fighter jet and reduce funds for missile defense and other big-ticket items, but more than double unmanned craft used in targeting militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The aim of this “fundamental overhaul,” Mr. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon, was to focus on “wars we are in today and scenarios for the years ahead,” including the insurgency in Afghanistan.

The budget, he said, represented “one of those rare chances to match virtue to necessity, to critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements - those things that are desirable in a perfect world from those things that are truly needed in light of the threats America faces and the missions we are likely to undertake in the years ahead.”

Congressional responses reflected both ideology and concerns about losing production contracts in legislators’ districts.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to President Obama on Monday opposing what they described as “deep cuts” in missile and missile-defense programs.

The signers included Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security; Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican; and four others.

The senators said U.S. security would be hurt by Mr. Gates’ proposal to cut or reduce funding for the Airborne Laser, Multiple Kill Vehicle program and the installation of more ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska.

“These proposals would amount to almost a 15 percent cut in the [Missile Defense Agency] budget and a major reduction in our missile defense portfolio - actions that we fear could undermine our emerging missile defense capabilities to protect the United States against a growing threat,” said the letter, which also was signed by Sens. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican; Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican; and James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.

In the House, angry Republicans seized on the timing of the announcement, which came a day after North Korea’s unsuccessful launch of a ballistic missile.

“North Korea’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile should be a clarion wake-up call to the whole world that this is not the time to diminish our missile-defense budget, as proposed by the Obama administration,” Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, said in a statement.

Mr. Franks, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said that instead of cuts in the nation’s missile-defense programs, begun by President Reagan in the 1980s, this “is a moment to strengthen our resolve and our military capability to defend ourselves and our allies, and to work to prevent North Korea’s dangerous missile and nuclear proliferation from arming our enemies across the world.”

He was joined by a half-dozen other Republican members of the House Missile Defense Caucus.

However, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee for president last year, issued a statement backing the cuts.

“I strongly support Secretary Gates’ decision to restructure a number of major defense programs,” he said. “It has long been necessary to shift spending away from weapon systems plagued by scheduling and cost overruns to ones that strike the correct balance between the needs of our deployed forces and the requirements for meeting the emerging threats of tomorrow.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, was supportive but less enthusiastic.

He called the budget “a good-faith effort,” adding that he appreciated “the hard work and thoughtful consideration Secretary Gates and his staff put into these proposals.”

“However, the buck stops with Congress, which has the critical constitutional responsibility to decide whether to support these proposals.”

Mr. Lieberman praised Mr. Gates’ decision to scrap a new helicopter for the president in favor of continuing to use the Sikorsky craft made in the senator’s home state, as well as a proposal to build a new generation of strategic submarines.

He objected, however, to the proposal to cap production of the F-22 Raptor at 187 jets. Each Raptor costs $140 million.

“If we stop the F-22 program now, our industrial base will suffer a major blow before the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter reaches full-rate production,” he said. “This would result in the loss of thousands of jobs in Connecticut - the skilled workers we will need to support the F-35 in just a few years.”

Mr. Lieberman said he will hold hearings to assess the proposals and “modify them” in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Some defense contractors, such as Lockheed Martin Corp., have warned of huge layoffs if programs are cut.

The proposed cuts also could reduce aircraft carrier production at Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Newport News, Va., shipyard.

The new budget would also:

• Provide $11.2 billion for the F-35 Lightning, or Joint Strike Fighter, which would increase the number to 30 jets, from the current 14. The program, which Mr. Gates prefers over the F-22, could end up costing $1 trillion to manufacture and maintain 2,443 planes.

• Eliminate a $26 billion satellite system.

• Cut back on armored vehicles for the Army’s $160 billion Future Combat Systems modernization program.

• Expand the Army and Marines and allocate more funds for Special Forces and intelligence capabilities.

• Increase unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Predator and Reaper, used against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Gates said that “fielding and sustaining 50 Predator class unmanned aerial vehicle orbits” by fiscal 2011 “will now be permanently funded in the base budget” and represents a 62 percent increase over current levels and a 127 percent rise from a year ago.

Mr. Gates said 10 percent of his budget would focus on “irregular warfare,” 50 percent on conventional conflicts and 40 percent on “hybrid warfare,” which he described as the biggest need in the future.

Mr. Gates said that the new budget also would help U.S. allies in counterinsurgency operations.

“The most important military component of the long war against radical extremism may not be the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our friends to fight against our common enemies,” he said.

• Donald Lambro and Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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