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Reset Wins Over Modernization: Sen. Levin

In a policy declaration that will reverberate through the Pentagon and defense industry, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee made clear today that when he has to pick whether to approve funding for a new program or for one that needs rebuilding he'll pick the existing program.

"I think there is a tension there and the reset will have to prevail," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in response to my question about the choices he will have to make as authorizers look for sustainable cuts to the defense budget.

Levin was speaking Friday afternoon with reporters to outline the committee's main goals over the next few months. Here they are, in order:

* How to handle the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, especially given the coming draw-down from Iraq. He identified provision of ISR -- especially UAVs -- and the training and positioning of the Afghan army. He wants the Afghan military to move to the border with Pakistan and replace the Afghan's border patrol, which he said has a history of corruption. The committee will begin hearings on these subjects next month.

* Acquisition reform. He identified several issues here. Establishing an independent office for cost estimates, as he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried to do last year, would be a key part of this effort. Levin also said that there was no doubt some weapons programs needed to be cut, given the international economic crisis: "We are going to have to find places where we can cut weapons systems. We have to face the reality," he said, adding that he and his colleagues "do not want to cut personnel" and the country has to fund the two wars we are fighting. Pressed for just where the committee might cut, Levin identified ships as the likeliest spot.

Asked if would cut FCS, Levin shied away, saying it "was a little less likely." He also went to some lengths to explain how he knew he and his colleagues would find it very difficult to cut programs with roots in their states or districts. He said most lawmakers don't simply protect programs because they provide jobs in their states. Instead, he said they are like trial lawyers who really come to believe their client's defense. Levin also conceded that he is very aware that his state has the country's highest unemployment rate and needs as many jobs as it can find.

* Wounded warrior legislation will be high on the committee's agenda.

* The role of security contractors, especially security contractors in Iraq.

* Missile defense. Levin clearly has high hopes the Obama administration can work with Russia to realign the two giants' positions on the nuclear threat from Iran. While vague on what technical forms the cooperation might take, he said he had spoken briefly with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the issue and believed "there is some real support" in the Obama administration for reshaping the relationship between Russia, the US and Iran.

The senior senator from Michigan also said that missile defense programs must begin realistic testing as soon as possible but he conceded that it may be difficult to require standard operational testing should the new administration oppose this approach.

* Detainees. Levin said the committee would be watching this issue closely but its actions would depend largely on what the administration does with the detainees.

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