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US: Pentagon Weighs Cuts and Revisions of Weapons

by Christopher DrewNew York Times
April 3rd, 2009

The Army’s expensive Future Combat Systems is likely to be cut back. So are exotic missile defense programs. But the supersonic F-22 fighter jet might survive. And problems with both old and new aircraft carriers could eventually lead to at least a temporary reduction in the number of carrier battle groups.

These are the consensus expectations of worried defense executives and consultants about the sweeping changes in military programs that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is expected to announce on Monday.

The decisions are expected to be the first step in a broad reshaping of the military under the Obama administration. Normally, the powerful industry’s lobbyists would already have the detailed blueprints of the Pentagon’s plans. But Mr. Gates required top Pentagon officials to sign agreements promising not to disclose details of the deliberations. Aides added that he would not make decisions on some of the dozens of programs until this weekend.

As a result, Mr. Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said Friday, “All this chatter out there is just chatter.”

Mr. Gates has made no secret of his intention to take a hatchet to troubled high-tech programs designed for fighting countries like China or Russia. Such moves would help free up money for simpler systems used for fighting insurgencies like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think you will see that he is attempting to reshape and rebalance the budget so that we are not so heavily weighted to preparing to fight conventional conflicts against near peer countries that may or may not take place, and instead spend more of the money to fight and win irregular conflicts like we are in now,” Mr. Morrell said.

Industry executives say that it is clear from such comments — as well as the scattered pieces of information they have gleaned from the deliberations — that the missile defense programs and parts of the Army’s sprawling modernization program will both be cut considerably.

Defense experts say that Mr. Gates is likely to cut $1 billion to $2 billion from missile defense programs. President Obama and other officials have made comments indicating that they are more interested in systems that protect soldiers from shorter-range missiles than still-unproven ones meant to destroy intercontinental missiles.

Several industry officials said they thought Boeing’s airborne laser system, which would equip a modified 747 jetliner with a laser to shoot down missiles shortly after they are launched, might be killed. They also said that Boeing’s ground-based midcourse defense system, which is also designed to destroy long-range missiles, could be scaled back.

Executives say they believe that Mr. Gates has already decided to revamp the Army’s Future Combat Systems, a $160 billion mix of robotic sensors and new combat vehicles, with the number of manned vehicles being scaled back to two or three, from eight.

But they expect the Pentagon to push ahead on the network of sensors, which are meant to protect soldiers by providing them with greater battlefield intelligence. Mr. Gates has prodded the Army to speed the development of some of the sensors and deploy them as quickly as possible.

James McAleese, a defense consultant in McLean, Va., said that it would be easier for Mr. Gates to cut back or delay programs that were still in development rather than to trim ones already in production.

Mr. McAleese and Loren Thompson, another consultant with ties to some of the biggest defense companies, both said they expected Mr. Gates to let the Air Force build 20 more F-22s next year. The Air Force would like to buy those and at least 40 more over the next two years to bring its fleet of the planes to at least 243.

The advanced fighter, which was designed in the cold war and has not been used in combat, has been a symbol of many of the cost overruns and delays that have plagued military programs. Other industry officials said Friday they were not sure if Mr. Gates would continue to finance it.

Other controversial programs, like a new presidential helicopter that has been riddled with cost overruns, are expected to be killed or curtailed. Those in the industry also expect Mr. Gates to end a Navy program to build a $3 billion stealth destroyer, though it is not clear how many will be built of the three ships that have received some money.

Representative Gene Taylor, a Democrat from Mississippi and chairman of a House seapower subcommittee, said questions had emerged about whether a new system for catapulting planes off the next generation of carriers would work. If it does not, the Navy would have to return to a traditional system, delaying the new carriers by a year.

Meanwhile, he said, the Navy has been debating whether to spend $1.5 billion to refuel one of the oldest carriers. If it does not, that could lead to a temporary cut in the carriers below the 11 that Congress has required.

Mr. Gates’s proposals will go to the White House, which will send a budget to Congress in May.



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