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Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday that all military programs were on the table — including nuclear arms and the joint strike fighter — as the Pentagon tries to meet the president’s goal of cutting $400 billion in spending over 12 years.
“If the political leadership of this country decides that it must reduce the investment in defense by hundreds of billions of dollars, then I don’t think we can afford to have anything that’s off the table,” Gates told a Pentagon news conference.
The defense secretary, who leaves office at the end of June, said he opposed across-the-board defense cuts that would hollow out the military force while leaving the current force structure intact.
President Barack Obama set a goal last month of holding national security spending below the rate of inflation for the next 12 years, a move that would save about $400 billion, mainly from Defense Department budgets.
The move came as Republicans and Democrats in Congress grapple with the country’s deficit, running about $1.4 trillion this fiscal year that ends September 30, and the national debt, which is over 90 percent of GDP.
Gates said Obama had made it clear the Pentagon should not make specific budget decisions before conducting a fundamental review of America’s military missions, capabilities and global security role.
“The new comprehensive review will ensure that future spending decisions are focused on strategy and risks and are not simply a math and accounting exercise,” Gates said.
MILITARY CUTS VS ADDED RISK
“This process must be about identifying options for the president and the Congress, where the nation is willing to accept risk in exchange for reduced investment in the Department of Defense,” he said.
The United States continues to prepare and arm for major battles like those fought in World War Two, even though conflicts in the foreseeable future are more likely to require the kind of light, mobile force used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gates wants political leaders to make conscious strategic choices about what kinds of programs they are willing to sacrifice, and in turn what military risks they are willing to accept, to implement the budget cuts.
Asked to what extent the F-35 joint strike fighter would be affected by the cutbacks, Gates said “the country needs the F-35″ but “obviously, if you’re going to change strategies or missions, that has implications for the amount of equipment you buy.”
“I would expect that to apply across the board, not just to the F-35,” he added.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 is a so-called “fifth-generation” fighter equipped with radar-evading stealth technologies that is meant to replace a range of fighters from different service branches.
The plane is the military’s priciest current acquisition, with a projected cost of more than $283 billion. The program’s projected cost has risen substantially in recent years, and any cuts in planned purchases by the Pentagon would drive unit costs higher.
“Here’s where … the rubber meets the road on this,” Gates said. “We must buy a fifth-generation fighter. We must replace the ballistic missile submarines toward the end of this decade.”
“So the point is there are some significant new investments that must be made,” Gates said. “How do you pay for that, in the context that we’re talking about? Those are the kinds of hard choices that I want to surface and have people address.”
Gates also declined to rule out eliminating one leg of the nuclear triad as a means of cost savings. The United States maintains missiles, submarines and aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Eliminating one of those systems, which need to be replaced or upgraded, could save billions of dollars.
Gates said all potential cuts had to be on the table so political leaders can make strategic choices rather than fall back on political expedient across-the-board cuts.
“The easiest thing is to say, ‘Cut defense by X percent,’” he added. “And I think that would be the most dangerous approach of all.”
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press