WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates' plan to overhaul military spending practices and strategy signals a new Pentagon willingness to play hardball politics with lawmakers in Congress.
Gates presented his changes April 6 as though they were another piece of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.
"I am concerned for the possibility that these decisions will have an impact on individual companies and workers around the country," Gates said at a media briefing. He proceeded to describe job losses resulting from the proposed end of the F-22 fighter jet program — and noted that they'd be offset by likely gains from expanded production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
When Congress returns Monday from a two-week spring recess, it will begin what promises to be a months-long look at Gates' plans. Typically, lawmakers are loath to cancel big weapons projects that generate jobs in their districts, and defense contractors take care to spread work across many states.
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Analysts, however, say that Gates' blueprint for spending $534 billion in fiscal 2010 shows political acumen unusual for a defense secretary, and as a result, Gates could find his sales job smoother than in the past.
"He showed he's anticipating Congress' response already," said Travis Sharp, military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "Technically, the Pentagon, when it makes these decisions, is not supposed to take domestic employment into consideration."
Gates, who said this week he hasn't heard from members of Congress about his plan, will argue that his changes will make the military more nimble and modern, and called his recommendations "the product of a holistic assessment of capabilities, requirements, risks and needs for the purpose of shifting this department in a different strategic direction."
That requires what Gates terms a "fundamental overhaul of our approach to procurement, acquisition and contracting." He insists his approach is based on national security, not politics.
Among Gates' more controversial proposals are to end production of the F-22, which helps provide jobs in 46 states, and to end production of the DDG-1000 Navy destroyer after three ships.
At the same time, though, he would accelerate production of the F-35, restart production of DDG-51 Aegis destroyer program, significantly increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps, and boost the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance program used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates' plan faces two traditional political minefields: Where the plans fit strategically and economically.
While there is consensus that the Pentagon is stuck with too many Cold War-era weapons, there's sharp disagreement over whether Gates has provided the means to move boldly in a new direction.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist research organization, said that Gates' plan should be viewed as a short-term fix, not a national security policy aimed at helping "a serious cost containment problem."
Cordesman branded the plans incomplete, adding that, "What is dangerous is thinking this is the broad restructuring of the U.S. defense posture that has to be made."
Loren Thompson, defense expert at the Lexington Institute, also was concerned, warning that "other nations will respond to U.S. cuts by becoming bolder."
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, however, called Gates' plans "strategically sound."
Korb, who's close to Obama administration officials and was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said the Gates plan "moves us in a direction where we should have moved several years ago."
The debate will begin next week in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The biggest battle for Gates is overcoming 535 parochial interests.
"I feel like his policy suggestions are on solid ground," said Andrew Krepinevich, the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "But the politics of the timing of them is debatable. When you terminate the F-22 you run into opponents who say 'Couldn't we use five, 15, 20 of this equipment because we need the economic stimulus.' There will be no rubber stamp from Congress on this."
The F-22 fight is expected to be Gates' biggest single challenge. The advanced tactical fighter, first used 12 years ago, is built primarily by Lockheed Martin.
Gates recommends that four more be bought this year, and those would be the last. He will push hard to speed production of the F-35, also built primarily by Lockheed Martin. Gates proposes building 14 of those this year, 30 next year and eventually, a total of 2,443.
Thompson said such tradeoffs showed "great political skill," but Colin Clark, editor of DoD Buzz.com, an online journal that tracks military issues, argued "they're not exactly the same jobs in the same places."
Some lawmakers say they will fight.
"This decision is imprudent, but this fight is not finished," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., of the F-22 decision.
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Gates estimates that the F-22 produces about 24,000 jobs. By the time the last fighter comes off the assembly line in two years, he said, that would drop to about 13,000.
F-22 backers say those figures are low.
Gates called the F-22 "a niche, silver-bullet solution required for a limited number of scenarios," while the F-35 has more advanced stealth and air-to-ground capability.
Importantly, the secretary estimated that the F-35 already has created about 38,000 jobs, and under his plan the figure would more than double in two years.
He said that his decisions "do a pretty good job, I think of taking care of the industrial base there and trying to even things out in terms of the work force."
There are some signs that Gates' balancing act could pay off. General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine would build all three of the remaining DDG-1000 ships, while work on the DDG- 51 would proceed in Pascagoula, Miss.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is a moderate whose vote was crucial to passage of Obama's economic stimulus package in February. Pascagoula is in the congressional district of Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., the chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee.
Collins was ecstatic about Gates' plan, calling it "incredibly welcome news for Maine and a testament to the highly skilled, hard-working men and women at Bath Iron Works."
Taylor, too, hailed the decision, noting that it meant "they will continue building these ships over the next decade" in his district.
That sort of balance was one reason why Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., a retired three-star Navy admiral, said that Gates "has a fair chance of succeeding."
"This is going to come down to the defense industry and Congress and what they will accept," said Sestak, who supports Gates' proposals despite having a company that makes an F-22 component in his district.
"I don't think he'll wind up getting everything through," Sestak said, "but he'll see a number of these get through."
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
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