Gates axes some costly weapons, emphasizes 'irregular' warfare

Defense secretary applies lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan to new Pentagon budget.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a dramatic departure from tradition, Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a Pentagon budget Monday that aims to help the US fight a hybrid form of warfare – one in which an insurgent with an AK-47 rifle is backed by a sophisticated ballistic missile.

Defense spending traditionally reflects conventional threats, posed by countries such as China or perhaps Iran. But Secretary Gates's $534 billion budget recommends billions of dollars for the counterinsurgency needs of unconventional conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, while making broad and controversial cuts to weapons programs such as the F-22 stealth fighter that Gates sees as part of an outdated, cold-war mind-set.

"I'm not trying to have irregular capabilities take the place of conventional capabilities," Gates said Monday. "I just want the irregular guys to have a seat at the table."

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This "reform budget," he said, is an opportunity "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."

The moves were welcomed by some analysts, who have been expecting the Defense secretary to shake things up for more than a year. "This is an important move away from residual cold-war capacity toward the national-security challenges of the 21st century," says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

But slashing bloated weapons programs runs directly counter to the existing defense-industrial complex, which favors conventional weaponry. Gates acknowledged that if approved, his recommendations would "profoundly reform how this department does business."

Congress is likely to resist cutting the weapons programs, which generate a huge number of jobs all over the country. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut expressed concern that ending the F-22 program would not only cut thousands of jobs but could also create strategic holes in the US military capability.

"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," Senator Lieberman said in a prepared statement.

Ending the Air Force's F-22 Raptor program would leave it with 187 airplanes that cost on average $140 million a piece. Gates has said earlier that the F-22, which has not been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan, is geared too much toward future threats from a "near peer" adversary such as China.

Gates would also restructure the Army's Future Combat System, a $160 billion program of vehicles, sensors, and other equipment that has run over cost and has yet to fully prove itself in a counterinsurgency environment.

Instead, the budget provides $2 billion more for remote-controlled airplanes and the intelligence they produce – seen as crucial, particularly in the resource-shy mission in Afghanistan. Gates's budget also provides $500 million more for helicopters and the pilots and aircrews they need to fly.

The budget also recommends billions more to research traumatic brain injury and psychological health – two "signature" injuries that have emerged over the past eight years.

Gates also announced that he would halt the creation of more Army units called "brigade combat teams" that may be seen as more appropriate to conventional warfare. Expanding those units without expanding the Army beyond its current target of 547,000 soldiers, said Gates, could prolong the use of "stop loss," in which the military prevents service members from leaving active duty after their term of service ends.

The defense budget has grown exponentially since before 9/11. In 2000, the baseline defense budget was $287 billion. The proposed fiscal 2010 budget is $534 billion with an additional proposal for $130 billion in pending war costs.

When Gates arrived as defense secretary at the end of 2006, the number of troop fatalities and injuries in Iraq was at some of their highest. As a result, one of his chief acquisition initiatives was to buy new bomb-resistant vehicles for the troops to use in Iraq. But the existing procurement process was not suited to design, bid, and build these vehicles quickly. Gates frequently complained that it took too long to get the vehicles fielded for wars that had been under way for several years. (He eventually succeeded at getting hundreds of vehicles deployed.)

Some analysts explain Gates's approach by likening the budget to an insurance policy – one that funds today's threats rather than remote ones that could emerge tomorrow.

"If I lived on the banks of the Mississippi, it might be nice to have fire insurance, but I sure ... want flood insurance," says Chris Hellman, military policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a think tank in Washington.

The launch of a rocket by North Korea over the weekend is a reminder that conventional threats remain. But Mr. Hellman said the launch represented a failure. "Opponents of missile defense will point to it and say that yet another fledgling missile technology didn't work," he says.

The Pentagon chief is also recommending scrapping programs that have come to characterize a bloated department that appeared to reward programs with seemingly few checks and balances. For example, Gates canceled the $6.5 billion presidential helicopter program that would have bought 23 new helicopters for the president. He said an effort to replace the fleet would start anew in 2011.

Gates acknowledged that his budget reflects a broad overhaul of defense acquisition and strategy.

"It is one thing to speak generally about the need for budget discipline and acquisition and contract reform," he said. "It is quite another to make tough choices about specific systems and defense priorities based solely on the national interest and then stick to those decisions over time."

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