WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposed budget, which aims to make a strong statement about future military strategy, is likely to stoke strong debate about whether the Pentagon focuses too much on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and not enough on threats from countries such as China and North Korea.
The debate begins Wednesday at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on readiness of U.S. ground forces.
The $534 billion budget would cut traditional military programs such as Future Combat Systems — robotic fighting systems — as well as elements of a missile defense system and more money to fund counterinsurgencies like Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates wants to add only four Air Force F-22s, and then end production of the aircraft, which is built in 46 states.
In addition, he calls for building three DDG-1000, a Navy destroyer that can operate in shallow water even as some question its need. They'd be built in Maine, home to two moderate Republican senators who've provided key support to the president's stimulus package.
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Gates has to navigate two traditional political minefields — the need for a long-term strategy and constraints forced on government by a deep economic recession.
Defense experts in and out of Congress agree that the Pentagon is still stuck with too many Cold War-era weapons and ways of operating, but they sharply disagree on whether Gates' plan moves boldly in a new direction. Indeed, nations such as China and India are feverishly developing conventional warfare means, and some worry that if the United States doesn't keep developing those weapons and skills, it could eventually fall behind.
Gates has said the wars of the future will be a "hybrid" mix of irregular warfare and traditional fighting, with foes ranging from other states to rogue groups. He asserts that U.S. conventional capabilities will remain superior under his budget.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Gates' plan should be viewed as a set of short-term fixes aimed at helping "a serious cost containment problem," not a new national security policy.
Cordesman branded the plans incomplete. "What is dangerous is thinking this is the broad restructuring of the U.S. defense posture that has to be made," he told McClatchy.
Loren Thompson, defense expert at the Lexington Institute, a think tank, warned that the plans focus too much on the here and now. "Other nations will respond to U.S. cuts by becoming bolder," he said.
However, Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration , called Gates' plans "strategically sound." Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who's close to Obama administration officials, found the Gates plan "moves us in a direction where we should have moved several years ago."
Throughout its history, the military has tried to balance fighting current wars with potential future threats, spending billions to train troops and create weapons that may never be needed. Experts point out, however, that so far, the U.S. hasn't done a great job of predicting the conflicts that lie ahead.
"U.S. policymakers have been notoriously bad at forecasting future threats. Think of all the surprises recently — Pearl Harbor, North Korea's invasion of the South, Sputnik, the Cuban missile crisis, the Tet Offensive, the collapse of communism, 9/11 and so on," Thompson wrote in an issue brief. "The record says we rarely know what's coming next, so basing our defense posture on the belief that we do isn't smart."
The Bush administration funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with supplemental bills, rather than the Pentagon's base budget. Gates, who traveled around the country last week to present his budget to the troops, has said that asking for money in such intervals was dangerous.
Gates said he plans to start a new era with the new budget he'll present to Congress this week.
"I kept running into the fact that the Department of Defense as an institution ï¿½which routinely complained that the rest of government wasn't at war — was itself not on war footing, even as young Americans were fighting and dying every day," Gates said last week," adding: "These proposals, then, begin the effort to establish an institutional home in the Department of Defense for today's war fighter as well as tomorrow's."
Gates said he hasn't heard directly from any members of Congress, who've been on break since he announced the budget April 6. At Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, however, he told airmen that when lawmakers return Monday, "I anticipate the next few weeks will be fairly exciting on acquisitions."
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
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