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Gates announces major cuts in defense budget

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday announced sweeping cuts and a significant shift in priorities for next year’s defense budget, with more money for servicemembers and federal employees but less for some major defense contractors.

Calling his plan a “reform budget,” Gates said he would eliminate the $11 billion VH-71 Presidential Helicopter program, end production of the F-22 Raptor at 187 aircraft, negotiate less expansive ways to build three DDG-1000 destroyers and drop the $87 billion vehicle portion of the Army’s Future Combat Systems program.

“I decided I would not take the political issues associated with any of these projects into account,” he said. “I decided I would just do what’s right for this country.”

And while other systems saw large cuts, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will see an increase of $4.4 billion to buy 513 aircraft over the next five years.

Gates also detailed moves designed to strengthen personnel programs and “lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The budget includes $500 million more than fiscal 2009 for recruiting and training helicopter maintenance crews, a major need for current missions overseas. Another $400 million will go towards new medical research, and $300 million more to supplement existing traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder programs.

The military’s special operations forces ranks will be increased by nearly 3,000 next year, and the Pentagon will triple the number of students in its cybersecurity programs. And Gates announced plans to hire up 30,000 new government employees to replace contractor slots over the next five years, 13,000 in 2010 alone.

Last week the House and Senate passed separate budget outlines for fiscal 2010, both calling for about $534 billion in defense spending next year, not including funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s up nearly 4 percent from fiscal 2009 levels.

But both the White House and Congress have promised major changes in defense acquisition this year, and Gates on Monday said this plan represents a call for more fiscal responsibility by defense planners.

“There has been broad agreement on the need for defense acquisition reform,” he said. “We’ve had enough hand-wringing. Now is the time for action.”

Pentagon officials have been tight-lipped about details of the defense budget for weeks. Gates made those involved in the process sign a nondisclosure agreement, and lawmakers did not receive any details until shortly before the public announcement of the plan.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said defense industry leaders weren’t given any advanced notice of the budget cuts.

Gates insisted the new budget does not ignore future threats in order to focus on immediate ones.

He estimated that about 10 percent of the total figure will go toward irregular warfare projects, 50 percent for conventional warfighting, and 40 percent dual-purpose programs.

The budget also plans to hold the Navy’s future aircraft carrier fleet at 10, down from the current 12. That was one of several major cuts for the Navy, including a halt to the CGX cruiser program and a delay in production of an 11th Landing Platform Dock Ship.

But the budget plan would accelerate the purchase of Navy littoral combat ships, which are designed for close-shore support missions. Plans had called for two next year; Now, the Pentagon will buy three and plan for a fleet of 55 in coming years.

Gates said that the missile defense program will also see cuts while officials re-evaluate ground-based interceptor systems.

Those decisions on missile defense come after North Korea’s launch of a long-range missile this weekend. While U.S. officials said North Korea failed to put a satellite into orbit, the test shows that North Korea can successfully fire a two-stage missile, said defense analyst Bruce Bennett for the RAND Corp.

Gates said he does not think the delay in those missile defense system will endanger U.S. forces or allies, noting plans to ramp up purchase of proven programs like the Patriot missile.

While the plan supports the continued growth in Army end strength to 547,000, it would hold the number of brigade combat teams at 45 instead of the planned 48. Gates said the change would allow for better-staffed BCTs, reducing the need for stop-lossed troops to fill in the gaps.

Lawmakers will begin hearings on the defense budget when Congress returns from break later this month.

Reporters Jeff Schogol and Kevin Baron contributed to this report.


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