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Gates to unveil defense budget overhaul Monday

Sat., April 4, 2009

Pentagon boss plans ‘fundamental shift’

WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will announce his plans for a sweeping overhaul of the defense budget Monday, Pentagon officials said.

Gates will announce his decisions first in telephone calls to congressional leaders Monday morning and then in an afternoon news conference.

Gates has been working for weeks on an overhaul of the defense budget and has been contemplating tough decisions on whether to cancel the Air Force’s F-22 fighter plane, Navy shipbuilding programs, the Army’s Future Combat System and a host of other weapons programs.

In an unusual move for the Pentagon, Gates will announce his budget recommendations before shipping the formal recommendation to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

“It … reflects the magnitude of the decision,” said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary. “These aren’t changes on the margins. It is a fundamental shift in direction.”

Gates will announce his recommendation publicly, Morrell said, because he wants a chance to explain how each decision on individual weapons programs adds up to a comprehensive vision.

“This has been an unusual process from the beginning,” he said. “He wants this viewed as a whole.”

The decisions will have a dramatic effect on a large number of defense contractors and are almost certain to be controversial.

Historically, it has proved difficult for defense secretaries to kill weapons programs. Many Pentagon leaders announce they are ending programs, only to see them revived by Congress or be resurrected under a new name.

A public announcement about Pentagon spending before the plan has been formally vetted by the Office of Management and Budget is unprecedented, said David J. Berteau, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International studies who specializes in defense acquisition.

The strategy may head off some attempts by lawmakers and others to alter it, and it also will give Gates a sense of what the real budget fights are likely to be.

“It’s a very good trial run to see how much heat is going to be generated and how much lighting is going to be thrown at him from Congress and industry,” Berteau said.

Morrell said Gates has not made final decisions on what programs he intends to eliminate or reduce – and will make those calls over the weekend.

Last year, in a series of speeches and articles, Gates outlined what he saw as fundamental problems with the Pentagon budget. Gates believes that too many programs try to do too much, leading to cost overruns and delays. Instead, he has said he would offer “75 percent” solutions – more modest, cost-effective decisions.

He also has pushed the Pentagon to do more to develop weapons systems relevant to the wars that the U.S. is fighting and other low-intensity conflicts. He has suggested the military spends too much time and money on developing weapons systems for conventional fights.

But Gates also has said the U.S. cannot abandon such programs altogether, but instead must seek a better balance.

President “Barack Obama’s style has not been nibbling on the edges,” said Berteau, the defense analyst. “He is going for the touchdown on every play. And that is what Gates has been saying in his articles, speeches and testimony. He’s saying … we are going to make hard decisions.”


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