Plan to Shift Military Spending Faces Skepticism

Posted in United States | 11-May-09 | Author: Thom Shanker| Source: New York Times (registration required)

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates talked to Marines at Forward Operating Base Bastion in Afghanistan.

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited southern Afghanistan late last week not only to assess the American war effort, but also to showcase the kind of conflict he thinks the military must prepare to fight in the years ahead.

Mr. Gates predicted more of these messy, unconventional wars, and he argued that this kind of conflict requires America to shift spending to items like mine-resistant vehicles, surveillance drones and medical-evacuation helicopters, at the expense of tanks, bombers and aircraft carriers.

But as Mr. Gates returned to Washington on Saturday for what will mostly likely be a lengthy, detailed and often hostile series of Congressional budget hearings this week, opponents of his risk assessment are attacking the spending plan as rendering America unprepared for traditional war.

They say the proposal goes too far in shifting money to unconventional warfare from the weapons needed to deter and defeat an enemy nation. And Mr. Gates's focus on counterinsurgency training, they say, means that troops have not spent enough time honing their skills for conventional conflict.

Mr. Gates has slashed money for the Army's future combat vehicle because its flat-bottom design made it vulnerable to roadside bombs. Here in Afghanistan, he examined a fleet of angular, heavily armored mine-resistant vehicles sent as part of the multibillion-dollar crash program he ordered to counter the insurgents' weapon of choice.

Standing beside one armored troop carrier crippled by a huge homemade mine, Mr. Gates spoke with two soldiers who had emerged from the wreck unscathed. Others suffered a broken arm, a knee injury and a concussion.

"These vehicles keep us alive," said Lt. Col. Michael Jernigan, commander of the Marines' Combat Logistics Battalion 3.

Mr. Gates has proposed eliminating money for the new, high-tech presidential helicopter and capping purchases of a top-of-the-line jet-fighter - but here he also met with the crew operating 10 medical-evacuation helicopters ordered from the Nevada desert to be on standby in the deserts of southern Afghanistan. Mr. Gates had been angered by how long it took to move the wounded, so he increased the number of helicopters here, plus three more field hospitals.

Lt. Col. Christopher Barnett is commander of the Air Force medical-evacuation helicopter unit moved to Afghanistan from war games in Nevada, where it played on the enemy team.

"Now it's about saving lives," he told Mr. Gates.

And to highlight the defense secretary's initiative to get faster tactical intelligence to American troops in combat, Mr. Gates toured a secret intelligence fusion center, where a series of oversize screens showed real-time video broadcast from surveillance drones in the skies over insurgent havens of Afghanistan.

"My job is to get you what you need to get the mission done successfully," Mr. Gates told several hundred Marines who just landed here at Camp Leatherneck as the vanguard of more than 20,000 additional troops ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama.

The defense industry, which makes what Mr. Gates wants as well as what he does not, has chosen to mute its complaints on the proposed spending plan. But on Capitol Hill, champions of programs in jeopardy are preparing to do battle this week.

The proposed spending plan "is taking us down a path that leads to a weaker military that is poorly equipped," said Senator James M. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.

"Are the forces being provided to our commanders in the field postured to counter the full spectrum of threats both in the near and far term?" he asked during a speech on the Senate floor. "Are we providing our troops the best and most capable equipment available? We are not today."

Others, like Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, cite the threats posed by nations around the world that remain true adversaries - or at least are competitors to American interests.

In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy center in Washington, Mr. Cornyn said that China was upgrading and expanding its navy to challenge American warships, that Russia was striving to intimidate its neighbors and re-establish a sphere of influence, and that North Korea and Iran continued to expand their missile arsenals while pursuing nuclear weapons.

"Despite so many security threats emerging or growing," Mr. Cornyn said, "the administration envisions a military that will have less strength to meet them."

Mr. Gates explained during troop visits in Afghanistan that half of his budget proposal remained committed to conventional warfare, while 40 percent paid for weapons that can be applied to both traditional and unconventional conflicts.

His attempt to rebalance military spending, Mr. Gates said, shifts only 10 percent of the budget to buying in the specialized tools of unconventional and counterinsurgency warfare.

Many of those most directly involved in today's war say that the Gates budget proposal sets the priorities right, and that the complexities and rigors of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq have created the most capable American military in the nation's history.

"When you get into what does that mean, to do counterinsurgency, you'll find that there will be companies on the battlefield that are fighting the combined arms fight using artillery, other weapons systems, maneuver, intelligence and all of that," said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of allied forces across southern Afghanistan.

"And they are synchronizing all of these systems and doing all of the things they would have to do in a conventional fight - but they are doing it at a lower level, with more junior officers in charge, than ever before," he added. "Our squad leaders, platoon leaders, our company commanders are broadening their experience."