WASHINGTON The White House has asked the Pentagon to cut nearly $2 billion, or up to roughly 20 percent, from missile defense in its fiscal 2010 budget, a prominent advocate of the costliest U.S. weapons development effort said on Friday.
Boeing Co's Airborne Laser, a modified 747 being designed to zap ballistic missiles moments after liftoff, was in "very serious jeopardy of being taken out," said Riki Ellison, head of the industry-supported Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates brought in U.S. combat commanders and heads of the armed services on Friday to help make "tough choices" in the Pentagon's fiscal 2010 budget, a Defense Department spokesman said.
"This is, as you know, a highly sensitive process. And as it plays out over the next month or so, neither I nor any of the participants will be able to speak to specifics of what is being discussed and debated," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Ellison said also vulnerable to cuts were Lockheed Martin Corp's Multiple Kill Vehicle and the Space-Based Surveillance and Tracking System being developed by Northrop Grumman Corp and Raytheon Co.
Other cuts could slow the expansion of the Boeing-managed long-range missile defense, which includes interceptors in underground silos in Alaska and California.
Ellison, citing lawmakers and officials involved in the matter, said the White House Office of Management and Budget had pushed to cut $1.9 billion from the emerging shield put in place by former President George W. Bush.
Last year, Congress provided about $9.4 billion for the layered defense being built by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency.
Morrell said Gates "is acutely aware that we are crafting this budget in the midst of a global financial crisis, so it must not only be militarily responsible, but also fiscally realistic."
As a result, Gates is demanding "tough choices about programs suffering from serious execution problems," Morrell said without citing specific areas.
The White House's Office of Management and Budget initially asked the Pentagon to limit its core request to a no-growth $527 billion, excluding war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This would match a level projected a year ago and be about 10 percent below a revised number floated by Pentagon officials in August.
Gates told reporters Tuesday that the $527 billion figure represented more of "a place to begin a dialogue," including on which war costs to roll into the base budget. Congress provided $515 billion for the core spending plan in fiscal 2009, which began October 1.
In convening a so-called Defense Senior Leadership Conference on Friday, Gates wanted to give his combat commanders a chance to "weigh in early" in the 2010 budget process, Morrell said.
He also instructed them to find new ways of doing business more efficiently and cost-effectively, In addition, he wants the services to be "as joint in their acquisitions as they are in their operations," the spokesman said.
Another possible missile-defense cut would slow the projected installation of 10 two-stage interceptor missiles in Poland and a related radar site in the Czech Republic.
A senior U.S. official said on Friday President Barack Obama's administration was willing to slow down plans for the European sites if Russia agreed to help stop Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programs.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said January 30 that he would "love" to cut spending on missile defense.
A rough outline of the defense budget is due to be sent to Congress before the end of February, with details to go by the end of April.
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Tim Dobbyn)