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Hill To Spend And Rebuild DoD: Murtha

Build tankers. More ships. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates needs to drop this re-balance stuff and rebuild our conventional forces. Congress will “spend money on defense for a long period of time… to get the military back to where it should be.”

Those are the sentiments of Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), the pugnacious and powerful chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. Murtha doesn't need to wait for the Obama administration to present its detailed defense budget. He came out swinging today at an Aviation Week conference.

In what may be the most telling statement for the long haul, Murtha slammed Gates for going too far in his efforts to "re-balance” the military to better fight small-scale irregular wars versus preparing for large scale conventional battles against another great power. The military should only be used against direct threats to U.S. security, and Murtha favors buying weapons to fight at the higher end of the conflict scale. The quote to remember: "We’re going to spend money on defense for a long period of time… to get the military back to where it should be."

He plans to fund 10 ships in the next spending bill. Murtha didn't get very specific. It will be a mix of Littoral Combat Ships, submarines and a new aircraft carrier. “We’ll put 10 in. I’m not sure what the mix will be,” he said.

On the KC-X program, Murtha said we got to build them and we better build them fast. Awarding both industry teams a slice of the contract because it is the only way to avoid further contract protests and delays. “We believe we should build two tankers a month instead of one, because they’re so old and it would take so long to get the (old tankers) replaced,” Murtha said. The proposal for a new tanker contract would be included in the 2009 supplemental.

The tanker contest would still be competitive, he said. “The [company team] that has the best proposal would get the most airplanes per month. The other one would get less.” He said the details of the proposed contract award have yet to be worked out, but he thinks he can sell the idea to the rest of Congress. “If [the new tanker contract is] contested you’re not going to get a new tanker for another two or three years.” He said he was unsure whether he could convince DoD to go along with the plan.

Meanwhile, the White House proved that when budget deliberations are under way, no niggle can be too small. Case in point: White House spokesman Ken Baer's statement that OMB has "not directed the Defense Department to either delay production of the new tanker or cancel the new bombers."

OK. The White House has "not directed" the department to do anything, yet. But these are possibilities being considered by the people who have the final say on what goes in the budget. So it's pretty big news when those folks even consider a substantial delay to a program worth $35 billion or so, not to mention one that is the Air Force's top priority.

The fact that the White House spoke publicly about these budget deliberations, after requiring senior DoD officials sign a pledge not to reveal any details, shows just how hot the budget battles have already become.

On top of the tanker and next-gen bomber, the White House has also directed the Pentagon to consider major changes to the Amy's Future Combat System, the Airborne Laser missile defense program, and the Marines' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. None of those are surprises to regular DoD Buzz readers, of course.

The biggest possible loser in industry, should any of these happen, is Boeing, maker of FCS, ABL and -- maybe -- of tanker. Boeing is also hooked up with Lockheed on the next-gen bomber but that money was so iffy to start with that we won't count it. The EFV is built by General Dynamics.

My prognosis: ABL is the likeliest major cut, and next-gen bomber the easiest cancellation or long delay. ABL is far behind and so far over budget and lacks the enormous constituency to which the tanker and FCS can lay claim.

Boeing defended the program, noting that ABL is the only boost-phase program MDA is pursuing and argued it could be used for other missions.

"Although ABL's primary mission according to the Missile Defense Agency is to intercept all classes of ballistic missiles in the boost phase, with company research and development resources, the directed energy team has begun simulation work to show capabilities for the system in the future. We believe this capability could include counter-aircraft and counter-SAM and potentially counter-cruise missile," Boeing spokesman Marc Selinger said. But ABL faces an uphill battle, extra missions or no. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) has shown consistent doubts -- if not outright hostility -- about the ABL program, although she is chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Reflecting that deep and continuing skepticism about missile defense among Democrats, Murtha said he thought missile defense will be cut. He urged a balance of sea and land based missile defense, something we've been hearing from the Senate for some time, on both sides of the aisle. And that does not include ABL.

Greg Grant contributed mightily to this story.

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