- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense spending is about to enter a steep decline that may force the Pentagon to abandon some military missions, shrink the armed forces and perhaps limit the U.S. role in the world, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday.

In one of his final policy speeches before retiring next month, Mr. Gates said he has been disappointed by Pentagon efforts thus far to find budget savings. But he also cautioned that further cuts on the scale proposed by some — including President Obama — will require tough decisions on eliminating some weapons and overseas missions.

Some in Congress are pushing to cut defense even more deeply as part of a broader effort to shrink the government’s deepening budget deficits; the shortfall in the current budget year alone is expected to reach $1.5 trillion.

That political momentum is reinforced by a perception that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to an end and that the killing of Osama bin Laden means the war on terror is winding down. Mr. Gates, however, is quick to point out that Afghanistan remains unstable and military crises tend to erupt without long lead times.

Mr. Gates did not spell out his own vision for how to manage such reductions, but he identified several weapons as “absolutely critical” for the future — including a new fleet of aerial refueling planes, more Navy ships and a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines.

In remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank that is generally hostile to defense spending cuts, Mr. Gates said it is time to acknowledge that the post-2001 years of nearly unquestioned defense spending, similar to Cold War expenditures, have come to an end.

“We’re not going to see a return to Cold War-level defense budgets,” Mr. Gates said, citing a “bleak fiscal outlook” for the United States.

“The money and political support simply aren’t there,” he said.

Mr. Gates, who succeeded Donald H. Rumsfeld in December 2006, said he already has reduced or eliminated spending in the most obvious areas.

“The ‘low-hanging fruit’ — those weapons and other programs considered most questionable — have not only been plucked, they have been stomped and crushed,” he said.

And while further reductions are unavoidable, some weapons should be exempt from the budget axe, Mr. Gates said. He cited a new aerial refueling plane for the Air Force, a next-generation fleet of F-35 strike aircraft to maintain a margin of superiority over Russia and China, more ships and “at some point” a replacement for the Navy’s fleet of ballistic-missile submarines.

Mr. Gates called for a review of basic defense strategy to ensure that budget cuts are suited to the kind of military and security power the U.S. believes it needs in the years ahead. He started the review after Mr. Obama announced on April 13 that he wanted another $400 billion in defense savings over the next 12 years.

“If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military, people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country,” Gates said.

“They need to understand what it could mean for a smaller pool of troops and their families if America is forced into a protracted land war again — yes, the kind no defense secretary should recommend any time soon, but one we may not be able to avoid.”

Mr. Gates is leaving to his designated successor, Leon E. Panetta, the tough task of meeting White House and congressional demands for new budget savings while the nation is still at war. But before he goes, Mr. Gates said, he wants to ensure that decisions are based on a broad review of future military needs.

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