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Gates defuses budget battle

In a carefully orchestrated campaign, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appears poised to push through what many consider a historic remaking of the military with relative ease, averting an expected battle royal with contractors and lawmakers.

“It really looks like he has played his cards well on this,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.

Gates unveiled a plan this month to shift money from big weapons systems including the F-22 fighter plane and invest more in programs geared toward unconventional conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far, lobbyists and lawmakers have been uncharacteristically quiet.

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“My general perception is that Gates is going to get his way for 90% of these decisions,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Analysts credit the relative calm to Gates’ policies and timing: He imposed strict Pentagon secrecy, making aides and commanders sign nondisclosure agreements, and he announced the plan just as Congress was starting a two-week break.

Gates’ status as the Obama Cabinet’s sole holdover from the Bush administration also has given his decisions an air of nonpartisanship, making it difficult for critics to charge political motives were at play. His proposal has won praise from President Obama and was endorsed by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

The Defense secretary even took steps to preclude opposition. For instance, in calling to cancel a new generation of Army tanks and transports, he promised to fund designs for different vehicles that would meet future needs.

Gates began laying the groundwork before his April 6 announcement, publicly portraying some military efforts and weapons systems as being out of step with the pressing needs of enlisted personnel.

Then he moved to cancel the F-22, the Army’s Future Combat Systems modernization program, a new Navy destroyer and the C-17 cargo plane -- proposing a larger Pentagon budget with more money for intelligence and personnel, paying special attention to medical and psychological treatment issues.

The defense budget next year will be about $534 billion, compared with $513 billion this year. Separately, Congress is beginning debate on a free-standing $83-billion spending bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Some conservatives say that because of ever-rising military costs, Gates’ budget is essentially flat in terms of spending and thus represents a cut in modernization programs. But because overall 2010 defense spending will be larger, Gates can argue he is not making cuts.

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“His budget is still going to be bigger than the last budget,” Harrison said. “It is just taking away from some areas and putting back in others. The contractors may lose in some areas and gain in another.”

Lawmakers may challenge Gates over the F-22, which has engines made by Connecticut’s Pratt & Whitney, and Boeing’s C-17, which is built in Long Beach. A coalition of lawmakers also may try to stave off cuts to missile defense programs.

But to keep or boost funding for any of those weapons systems, lawmakers would need broad congressional alliances and would have to find other programs that colleagues would agree to cut.

Potential congressional opponents were put at a disadvantage by Gates’ timing. Because the proposed cuts were announced while Congress was on recess, lawmakers spread out across the country were less able to coordinate their efforts.

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Just as important, analysts said, was Gates’ tight control of the decision-making process.

According to Eaglen, the nondisclosure agreements may have prevented the individual services from providing Congress with an accounting of their so-called unfunded requirements, a wish-list of weapons they sought but did not get from the Pentagon chief. That helped keep the details quiet before Gates’ announcement.

And “the ongoing nondisclosure agreements will ensure the service chiefs do not undercut Gates when they testify on the Hill,” Eaglen said. “He is presenting a unified Department of Defense position, which is very atypical for this process.”

Last week, Gates toured all four of the military war colleges to promote his plan. Few students challenged his budget decisions.

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But one student at the Naval War College questioned the nondisclosure agreements. Gates responded that keeping his deliberations secret was a way of keeping outside pressures at bay.

In addition, Gates said, he was trying to make a splash with his budget. A series of leaks would have undercut that effect. “Part of my purpose was to announce all of the changes at once so that the range of it would have some impact -- that we were trying to do something different,” he said.

Not only must Gates sell his budget proposal to the defense industry and Congress, but he thinks it is crucial to get the rank-and-file military behind him.

“Generating support among the military’s future leaders,” Eaglen said, “reduces the odds that Gates’ decisions will be overturned by the next secretary of Defense.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Shifting priorities

Highlights of the proposed cuts and additions in the new U.S. military budget:

PROPOSED CUTS

* Eliminate the vehicle program portion of the Army’s Future Combat Systems project.

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* Halt production of the C-17 cargo plane.

* Cap production of F-22 fighters at 187 planes, without further purchases.

* Terminate VH-71 presidential helicopter fleet.

* Make cuts in the U.S. strategic missile defense program.

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PROPOSED ADDITIONS

* Increase Army and Marine Corps personnel and halt reductions in Air Force and Navy personnel.

* Improve medical research and development.

* Expand traumatic brain injury care, psychological assistance and other health programs.

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* Expand and improve enlisted personnel child care, spousal support, lodging and education.

* Improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support.

* Increase production of unmanned aircraft.

Source: Times reporting

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