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Gates Announces Sweeping Changes, Cuts in Defense Budget

April 6, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced large cuts in the Pentagon budget that would slash spending on missile defense and traditional war technologies and increase funding for new weapons systems designed to fight insurgencies. An analyst discusses the changes.

GWEN IFILL: At the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a plan to make major cuts and shifts in military spending. Gates said the military needs to shift its focus from conventional warfare to insurgencies.

ROBERT GATES, secretary of Defense: This budget represents an opportunity, 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, an opportunity to truly reform the way we do business.

GWEN IFILL: Ray Suarez has more.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Gates proposed stopping or cutting some big-ticket items: stopping production of the F-22 fighter jet at 187 planes; canceling a new fleet of presidential helicopters; scaling back the Army’s modernization program called Future Combat Systems; as well as changes in missile defense.

The proposed $534 billion budget would require approval from Congress, and big fights are anticipated in states where job losses might loom.

For more, we go to James Kitfield, national security correspondent for National Journal.

And, James Kitfield, there have been rumors about targeted weapons systems for months.

JAMES KITFIELD, National Journal: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: When the secretary finally announced the cuts, were there surprises?

JAMES KITFIELD: I think the scope of what he announced is surprising. I mean, everyone focused on the F-22 because that’s a very high-profile program. He had talked about capping it. There was going to be a battle over that with Congress already.

But he came out and, you know, a lot of the top 10, top 20 major programs he announced either cuts to or scaling back of. So I think the people who’ve been following this, like myself, knew that Gates was frustrated. He has said for quite a while that this whole — he calls it “next-war-itis,” where the Pentagon constantly looks to modernize its conventional forces for the next big war, you know, they kind of like and don’t really focus on sort of giving him the tools to win the wars we’re in, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That has been very frustrating to him. I think he was also frustrated by the cost growth in these programs. GAO has recently said that the top 100 programs are over budget by $300 billion, which is a pretty staggering number.

So those frustrations have been building in Gates. I think what we found out today was exactly how frustrated he is.

All services take cuts

RAY SUAREZ: Was the pain spread? Did all the services take a hit?

JAMES KITFIELD: All the services took a hit. The Army Future Combat System you mentioned, I mean, that's their major modernization of their tank and their Bradley Fighting Vehicle, their armored vehicles, that the vehicles are now knocked out of the program. That's $90 billion right there.

The Navy may take a hit to an aircraft carrier. The Air Force lost a search-and-rescue helicopter. The F-22, as we said, will be capped, although they did increase the follow-on F-35 fighter, which is going to basically replace the F-16.

So there were some increases in here that were also sort of interesting, not only search-and-rescue, but unmanned aerial vehicles, things that you use --- that people in the Iraq, the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have been screaming for, UAVs, more special forces, more communications intercept-type equipment. And those things were plussed up, but at the cost of some of these legacy systems.

RAY SUAREZ: Ah, so by changing the emphasis, the secretary is trying to reshape the military, emphasize different things?

JAMES KITFIELD: He is determined to try to reshape the culture, as he said. The culture, he sees it as basically the warfighter has very little of a constituency inside the Pentagon, between, you know, the industry lobbyists for the defense industry, between the congressional lawmakers who have a lot of these programs in their backyard, and home state jobs are involved, and between sort of the service senior acquisition officials who are focused on the huge ticket items, he thinks that the warfighter has gotten lost in that.

And he wants to change the culture where really the system responds most to the warfighter in the field and the wars we're fighting now, which are irregular, asymmetric-type warfares, guerilla-type warfares, versus this conventional focus that he thinks still infects the Pentagon from the Cold War.

Senators object to cuts

RAY SUAREZ: The secretary had barely backed away from the microphone, and already there was a release on the wires from six senators objecting to the cuts in missile defense, the ground-based and space-based shield against incoming missiles. Is this just the beginning of what's going to be a tough fight for him?

JAMES KITFIELD: Oh, absolutely. This is the opening salvo, and there's going to be a battle royale with Congress and the defense industry for these big-ticket items.

He has basically, you know, put down a marker and saying, "I'm serious," but he's going to have to, you know, defend all that up on the Hill. And we'll see where Congress comes out on it.

But I -- you know, the first secretary I've seen who's willing to really tackle what we've been writing about for a long time in the industry, which is a train wreck. You know, we're spending more money and there's more programs in the pipeline than the defense budget will contain, really, that it can basically buy.

And what he is saying is, you know, we're going to avoid that train wreck by cutting some of these big programs, because you can't cut -- the other two areas you cut are personnel -- we're increasing personnel because of the deployment schedules of our soldiers -- and readiness. And in a time of war, you can't really cut readiness.

So he's going after the one pot of money that's out there that unfortunately has got the biggest political constituency.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any weapon systems that were widely described discussed as sacrificial lambs, as things that were in deep trouble that didn't get cut, that either through their own lobbying inside the Pentagon or from outside pressure have stayed on the shopping list?

JAMES KITFIELD: Well, the one interesting thing was the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35. That's the follow-on. It's slightly less capable than the F-22. While everyone was focused on the F-22, he's actually plussed, almost doubled the production rate next year of the F-35, which means that he's serious. He's taken the Air Force's concerns that its fighter fleet is aging rapidly seriously, but he's going to let them buy a less capable aircraft that's cheaper than the F-22.

And I think that kind of tips his hand to -- he's looking for cost savings. He's looking for programs that can really be justified as, you know, being well run, not way over schedule, not way behind schedule, not way over cost.

Break from the Bush era

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Secretary Gates has been secretary longer than President Obama has been president. It's a little bit of an unusual situation. Could Secretary Gates have made these cuts under President Bush?

JAMES KITFIELD: No, I don't think there's any way that he would have made these under President Bush. In fact, as recently as December, the military was floating a budget that had a huge increase, 14 percent increase over last year. This budget represents, basically, increase with inflation 4 percent.

And Gates was said to have at least, you know, let the chiefs take that to the Obama administration and try to defend it. The Obama administration said, no, we're not going to increase the defense spending 14 percent at a time when the economy is near collapse.

And I think everyone understands that, in this economic environment, like he said, there's an opportunity here to actually get some fundamental sort of problems with our acquisition system under control.

RAY SUAREZ: You talk about the economic environment, but the secretary himself said today that these are cuts he would have made even without economic pressures.

JAMES KITFIELD: You know, like I said, his frustration level was growing. A lot of us who cover defense issues have seen that. But I'm not sure -- the economic collapse has really instilled some discipline where the system wasn't really showing a lot of discipline before.

I mean, we have doubled the defense spending since 2001. We still, even with this budget of 4 percent, spend more than the next 25 countries combined spend on the military, and many of those are our allies. So I think he felt that this system was out of control and he wanted to get it back in control.

RAY SUAREZ: James Kitfield, thanks for joining us.

JAMES KITFIELD: My pleasure.