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Defense Chief Proposes Weapons Cuts

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. For weeks the Pentagon rumor mill has been churning. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that big budget cuts were coming. He told Congress that, quote, "the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing."

SHAPIRO: Yesterday was decision day and Gates did announce cuts to a number of big programs, but he also called for more money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NPR's defense correspondent Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Let's start with the cuts. Secretary Gates says he wants to fundamentally shift the way the Pentagon does business and stop spending billions on conventional programs designed to fight an enemy that no longer exists. So the Pentagon's new budget reigns in spending on missile defense, it cuts Navy shipbuilding programs, stops production of the F-22 fighter jet, and scraps the $26 billion transformational satellite program.

Then there's the new fleet of presidential helicopters - a program that gained notoriety recently when Senator John McCain pointed out the new choppers were so over-budget, they now cost as much as Air Force One. Secretary Gates says the helicopters were supposed to cost 6.5 billion.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): Today the program is estimated to cost over $13 billion, has fallen six years behind schedule, and runs the risk of not delivering the requested capability.

KELLY: So Gates says it should be terminated. Still, some of the cuts were not as deep as defense contractors had feared and Gates wants to expand some programs, in particular those that support the wars the U.S. military is currently fighting. For example, Gates wants more money for Predator and Reaper drones - the unmanned planes that circle high above Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But Gates denies that he is prioritizing current wars at the expense of future threats. The reality, he says, is more complicated.

Sec. GATES: Most of the people that I talk to are now increasingly talking about a spectrum of conflict in which you may face at the same time an insurgent with an AK-47 and his supporting element with a highly sophisticated ballistic missile.

KELLY: Reorienting the Pentagon towards that type of scenario, what Gates calls complex hybrid warfare, is a huge challenge, not least because support is deeply entrenched for some of the programs Gates would like to cut. Recent history offers a long line of defense secretaries who've tried to kill a weapon's program only to see it resurrected by Congress in the final budget negotiations.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.