Military services largely on board with Gates's defense budget

But it could be the lull before the storm as lobbyists and lawmakers begin to weigh in on controversial cuts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Defense Secretary Robert Gates's controversial new budget is not yet meeting the stiff resistance that even he expected from members of Congress, industry officials, and senior officers inside his own Pentagon. It's a sign that many of the wide-ranging reforms contained in his half-trillion-dollar spending plan could succeed.

Last week, Mr. Gates unveiled the broad brush strokes of a $534 billion budget for fiscal 2010 that includes ending some programs and cutting others he thinks are irrelevant or too expensive and that initially prompted outcry from some members of Congress.

But in the days since, Gates and his aides have pointed to more support for his budget than opposition. That may stem from what many experts see as the writing on the wall: His proposals come amid an economic crisis in which there is an appetite to contain the massive defense budget despite the political popularity of many programs. And for more than a year, Gates has railed against programs that don't meet the needs of soldiers fighting current conflicts.

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For example, he has proposed capping the Air Force's centerpiece acquisition program, the F-22 stealth fighter, at 187 aircraft. Some lawmakers remain extremely concerned about the proposal, but the criticisms are less strident.

"I have actually been fairly pleasantly surprised," Gates told reporters during a trip to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama to sell his proposals to the military's rank-and-file. "It seems to me that a lot of the responses have been thoughtful and [members] are willing to take this seriously in the vein that it was intended." He mused that the silence could be because some lawmakers are out of town. "I don't know if I'm in the eye of the storm," he joked.

Gates likely will get much of what he wants, but only after some compromise, says a staffer for a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee. Sens. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and John McCain (R) of Arizona are both generally supportive of many of Gates's aims.

"I do think the reforms are possible - especially this year's program cuts," said the staffer in an e-mail. "I think there is going to be a fight, and some [programs cut by Gates] will be at least partially restored."

The criticism on the F-22 issue has been blunted since the Air Force itself is now on board with the plan. This week, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, and Michael Donley, the Air Force secretary, laid out their thinking as to why the proposal makes sense. It was a reversal from a service that previously (and under different leadership) had lobbied for more fighters than even the Bush administration supported at the time. The former Air Force secretary and chief of staff were fired by Gates last year.

"The time has come to close out production," Mr. Donley and General Schwartz wrote in The Washington Post Sunday. That also makes it difficult for the powerful defense industry lobby, including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., to argue for more planes, since their own customer wants to end the program.

Last year, Gates appeared here at Maxwell Air Force Base, where he caused ripples in defense circles by telling a group of officers that they should get on more of a war footing. He struck a softer tone during a return visit Wednesday when he wasn't asked one question about the F-22.

"Looking forward, the goal of our weapons-buying is to develop a portfolio – a mixture of weapons whose flexibility allows us to respond to a spectrum of contingencies on or beyond the horizon," he said. "Focusing exclusively, or obsessively, on a single weapons system designed to do a specific job or confront a single adversary ignores what a truly joint force can and must do in the 21st century."

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