by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Igor Volsky
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Yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced his recommendations for the department's 2010 budget, offering "deep cuts in many traditional weapons systems but new billions of dollars for others, along with more troops and new technology to fight the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan." The Los Angeles Times described his proposal offering "the most sweeping changes in military spending priorities in decades." The Wonk Room's Matt Duss wrote yesterday that Gates's recommendations represent "an appreciable shift in the way that the United States approaches the issue of military acquisitions." By proposing major cuts in big-ticket items like the Army's Future Combat Systems and the Air Force's F-22, Gates is attempting to "swing the Pentagon's emphasis from conventional conflicts to irregular warfare." "This is a reform budget, reflecting lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan yet also addressing the range of other potential threats around the world, now and in the future," said Gates in the press conference announcing his plans. In an unusual move, Gates withheld his decisions from the White House until he made his formal announcement. But the White House appears to be supportive of his efforts. Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, told the Washington Independent that Gates's proposal was a "very important step" to "stop the era of irresponsibility, and no longer kick down the road tough decisions we need to make."
REAL CUTS: Perhaps the most notable decision in Gates's budget recommendations is his plan to end production of the F-22. Though the aircraft has been the subject of fierce lobbying in recent weeks, and members of Congress have suggested that they would resist efforts to downsize the program, Gates is capping production of the F-22 at 187 planes, down from the 381 the government was expected to order. In order to do this, Gates "promised to speed the testing of another fighter, the F-35, and maintain plans to eventually buy 2,443 of the planes," which could potentially maintain jobs for people currently working on the F-22. Gates' decision on the F-22 is welcome on two fronts. Not only does the plane contribute little to U.S. national security -- it has not flown a single mission in the Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns -- but the F-22 has also become increasingly costly to operate, even as the number of planes on order has decreased. Gates's budget recommendations also take an axe to programs like the Army's Future Combat System (FCS), which saw deeper cuts "than most analysts had expected."As Wired's Noah Shachtman noted, "Gates said he wanted to scrap all eight of the vehicles at the heart of FCS," though other aspects of the program will continue. Gates also announced an end to the production of the VH-71 presidential helicopter program. He pointed out in his announcement that the helicopter program was originally slated to cost $6.5 billion. However, now it "is estimated to cost over $13 billion, has fallen six years behind schedule, and runs the risk of not delivering the requested capability" -- all reasons why he wants to "terminate" it. The defense secretary also said he planned to scale back missile defense by $1.4 billion, halting the increase in the number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska.
THE INEVITABLE PUSHBACK: In his announcement, Gates anticipated that his recommendations would not be warmly received by some members of Congress and the defense industry. " I know that in the coming weeks we will hear a great deal about threats, and risk and danger -- to our country and to our men and women in uniform -- associated with different budget choices," he said. Indeed, "[j]ust 24 minutes after Gates finished his announcement," a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to President Obama attacking the proposed cuts to missile defense. "We fear that cuts to the budget for missile defense could inadvertently... foster the impression that the United States is an unreliable ally," wrote the senators, led by Joe Lieberman (I-CT). Gates also noted that many in Congress had "parochial interests" in protecting programs that provided jobs in their districts. A perfect example of the conflict between Gates' recommendations and the vested interests of members of Congress is in Georgia, where F-22 production employs 2,000 workers. The Georgia congressional delegation responded to Gates with a generally harsh tone. "This decision will not only cost thousands of jobs at a critical time, it is detrimental to the country's national defense capabilities," said Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) claimed that the Obama administration "is willing to sacrifice the lives of American military men and women for the sake of domestic programs favored by President Obama." Rep. Ike Skelton (D-GA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised Gates's "good-faith effort" but also warned that "the buck stops with Congress."
COULD HAVE GONE FURTHER: In December 2008, the Center for American Progress released a report, "Building a Military for the 21st Century," that recommended specific defense cuts. In a comparative analysis, Duss noted that while Gates makes many of the same recommendations, he differs from CAP in a some key areas. For instance, while Gates curtailed and canceled some missile defense programs, he also added funding for others. In 2008, CAP recommended that the Pentagon "cancel unproven missile defense programs." The CAP report recommended that the military build more C-17 cargo aircraft, but Gates wants to complete production of the C-17 this year. Regarding the F-35, CAP recommended that production continue, but that full-scale production should not start until flight tests have been completed. Gates, on the other hand, is increasing purchases of F-35s, with a "plan to buy 513 F-35s over the five-year defense plan, and, ultimately, plan to buy 2,443" of the aircraft. Overall, however, many of the cuts that Gates is embracing were originally proposed in CAP's Progressive Quadrennial Review report, which was written by Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb and Senior Policy Analysts Caroline Wadhams and Andrew Grotto in January 2006.