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Gates defuses the Defense budget battle

Experts say Robert M. Gates' careful campaign and timing has outflanked lawmakers and lobbyists as he plans sweeping changes in military spending.

April 25, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — In a carefully orchestrated campaign, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appears poised to push through what many consider a historic remaking of the military with relative ease, averting an expected battle royal with contractors and lawmakers.

"It really looks like he has played his cards well on this," said Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

Gates unveiled a plan this month to shift money from big weapons systems including the F-22 fighter plane and invest more in programs geared toward unconventional conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far, lobbyists and lawmakers have been uncharacteristically quiet.

"My general perception is that Gates is going to get his way for 90% of these decisions," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, April 30, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Pentagon budget: An article in Saturday's Section A about a potential battle over remaking the military said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had moved to cancel the Future Combat Systems military modernization program, a system of unmanned aircraft, tanks, transports and robotic vehicles linked by technology. Gates has proposed cancellation of the vehicle portion of the system but would keep other parts of it and move toward development of new vehicles.

Analysts credit the relative calm to Gates' policies and timing: He imposed strict Pentagon secrecy, making aides and commanders sign nondisclosure agreements, and he announced the plan just as Congress was starting a two-week break.

Gates' status as the Obama Cabinet's sole holdover from the Bush administration also has given his decisions an air of nonpartisanship, making it difficult for critics to charge political motives were at play. His proposal has won praise from President Obama and was endorsed by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

The Defense secretary even took steps to preclude opposition. For instance, in calling to cancel a new generation of Army tanks and transports, he promised to fund designs for different vehicles that would meet future needs.

Gates began laying the groundwork before his April 6 announcement, publicly portraying some military efforts and weapons systems as being out of step with the pressing needs of enlisted personnel.

Then he moved to cancel the F-22, the Army's Future Combat Systems modernization program, a new Navy destroyer and the C-17 cargo plane -- proposing a larger Pentagon budget with more money for intelligence and personnel, paying special attention to medical and psychological treatment issues.

The defense budget next year will be about $534 billion, compared with $513 billion this year. Separately, Congress is beginning debate on a free-standing $83-billion spending bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Some conservatives say that because of ever-rising military costs, Gates' budget is essentially flat in terms of spending and thus represents a cut in modernization programs. But because overall 2010 defense spending will be larger, Gates can argue he is not making cuts.

"His budget is still going to be bigger than the last budget," Harrison said. "It is just taking away from some areas and putting back in others. The contractors may lose in some areas and gain in another."

Lawmakers may challenge Gates over the F-22, which has engines made by Connecticut's Pratt & Whitney, and Boeing's C-17, which is built in Long Beach. A coalition of lawmakers also may try to stave off cuts to missile defense programs.

But to keep or boost funding for any of those weapons systems, lawmakers would need broad congressional alliances and would have to find other programs that colleagues would agree to cut.

Potential congressional opponents were put at a disadvantage by Gates' timing. Because the proposed cuts were announced while Congress was on recess, lawmakers spread out across the country were less able to coordinate their efforts.

Just as important, analysts said, was Gates' tight control of the decision-making process.

According to Eaglen, the nondisclosure agreements may have prevented the individual services from providing Congress with an accounting of their so-called unfunded requirements, a wish-list of weapons they sought but did not get from the Pentagon chief. That helped keep the details quiet before Gates' announcement.

And "the ongoing nondisclosure agreements will ensure the service chiefs do not undercut Gates when they testify on the Hill," Eaglen said. "He is presenting a unified Department of Defense position, which is very atypical for this process."

Last week, Gates toured all four of the military war colleges to promote his plan. Few students challenged his budget decisions.

But one student at the Naval War College questioned the nondisclosure agreements. Gates responded that keeping his deliberations secret was a way of keeping outside pressures at bay.

In addition, Gates said, he was trying to make a splash with his budget. A series of leaks would have undercut that effect. "Part of my purpose was to announce all of the changes at once so that the range of it would have some impact -- that we were trying to do something different," he said.

Not only must Gates sell his budget proposal to the defense industry and Congress, but he thinks it is crucial to get the rank-and-file military behind him.

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