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Defense secretary signals he'll reassess Navy, Marine Corps programs

The Marine Corps' amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Navy's big aircraft carrier fleet are examples of programs ripe for reevaluation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday.

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Gates' remarks amount to more than idle pondering. Many of his speeches are laced with references that typically translate to policy direction. Corps officials, including Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, defend the program – including Monday morning at the same conference, where he reiterated his support for the EFV. Corps officials issued a statement Monday, saying that while the Corps "understands the challenges that face the EFV," the platform is a "key enablers for amphibious flexibility" and that it remains the service's "Number one ground combat acquisition priority."

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But other Marine officials may be taking a more forward-looking posture. They sound as if they are not wedded to the particular EFV program, just the capability it brings.

“The issue is not the specific platform/vehicle, it’s the ability of our nation to conduct forcible entry,” says one senior Marine officer. “We need a vehicle that can conduct ship to shore movement…. [Gates] is right, we need to think about how much we need.”

Gates must raise questions about Navy programs given overall concerns about the growing constraints of the defense budget, says Jan van Tol, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.

“If defense spending is going to be more or less level spending for the foreseeable future, simple math suggests that the acquisition portion of the defense budget is going to be ever more pressured,” says Mr. van Tol, a retired naval officer.

Van Tol says he doesn’t necessarily agree that there should be fewer aircraft carriers, given the missions American carriers perform now. And he recognizes that the EFV is a sensitive subject for the Corps: Cutting the program could raise fundamental questions about the service’s overall amphibious mission. But he recognizes that, at a time of tight budgets, the Navy and Marine Corps are not immune. Their proposed budget for this next year is $160 billion.

“By necessity, Navy programs are going to come under the microscope,” he says. “That’s where a lot of the money is.”