* Gates vows not to repeat across-the-board cuts of '70s, '90s
* House panel clears $690 billion for military in 2012
* Strategy, not math, should drive budget plans, Gates says
By David Alexander and Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, May 12 U.S. Defense Secretary Robert
Gates said on Thursday his main goal before stepping down next month
is to focus attention on strategic choices facing the nation as it
flattens military spending to help curb the growing national debt.
He spoke hours after the House of Representatives Armed Services
Committee authorized $690 billion for the U.S. military complex in
fiscal 2012, including $119 billion to fund the war in Afghanistan
and transition in Iraq.
The sum cleared by the committee for the year starting Oct. 1
represented a small increase from the current fiscal year. It is
projected to be a high-water mark as the wars wind down along with a
post-Sept. 11 military spending surge.
Gates told Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that the
issue involved tradeoffs between acceptable risks and defense
capabilities that could be sacrificed.
"I am determined that we will not repeat what we did in the 1970s
and 1990s, which is across-the-board cuts that end up hollowing out
the force," he said.
Gates is to step down on June 30. While he did not offer specific
recommendations on the military's future structure, he said he hoped
to throw light on the choices at hand for President Barack Obama and
other decision-makers, including his nominated successor as defense
secretary, CIA director Leon Panetta.
"If you want to change the size of the budget in a dramatic way,
what risk are you prepared to take in terms of future threats to the
country?" Gates asked.
"How do you manage that risk as a part of a process of cutting
the budget?" he added. "This is what I call strategy, not math. Right
now the process is just the reverse. Everybody's doing math and not
Gates' warning followed several months of political brinkmanship
over the fiscal 2011 federal budget, which ultimately funded the
military complex at $668.6 billion compared to the $709 billion
requested by Obama.
Pentagon leaders have cautioned against cutting too much too
quickly, because rebuilding military capabilities in the future will
be even more expensive.
On Wednesday, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn sounded a
similar theme at an investors' conference in New York, stressing the
need to pare back to essential missions while maintaining a healthy
defense industrial base.
The House bill for 2012 added $425 million aimed at continuing
the production line for the Army's M1 Abrams tanks, a General
Dynamics Corp (GD.N) program, and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, made
by BAE Systems Plc (BAES.L).
The plan currently advocated by the Army would result in the
first break in tank production since 1941, lasting one to three
Roscoe Bartlett, chairman of the subcommittee that overseas
tactical air and land forces, argued that such a gap could end up
costing more than keeping Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle
production lines going while preserving important parts of the U.S.
military industrial base.
The House panel voted 54-to-5 Wednesday to require the Pentagon
to let General Electric Co (GE.N) and Rolls-Royce Group Plc (RR.L)
continue development of their alternate engine for the F-35 fighter
as long as it was done at no cost to the government, despite the
Pentagon's formal cancellation of its competitive engine program for
the fighter last month.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to take up its
version of the National Defense Authorization Act next month. The two
versions must be passed by the full House and Senate and any
differences must be ironed out before being sent to Obama for his
signature into law.
Obama is pressing to trim $400 billion, or 4 percent, from
roughly $10 trillion in projected national security-related spending
through fiscal 2023 as part of the debt reduction drive.
(Editing by David Lawder)