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Gates Readies Budget Ax for Monday Swipe

UPDATED: Expect First Word About Cuts Soon After Noon Monday After "Big 8" Congressional Leaders Briefed By Gates. Detailed briefings for congressional staff on Tuesday morning. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to announce major changes to the Pentagon's acquisition budget Monday afternoon.

"These are not changes to the margins. This is a fundamental shift in direction. And the secretary's point of view argues for an unconventional approach in explaining that shift to the American people," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Friday. Gates will call congressional leaders and brief them Monday morning.

The building, unusually, is not leaking like a sieve and, so far, the administration is not planting stories with favored news outlets.

However, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the trend crystal clear on March 23 during a missile defense conference. The money will go to systems that address the “most likely” threats, not to those aimed at the “most dangerous” threats, Cartwright said. Weapons that take decades to build and can address a limited array of threats will fall by the wayside. The nation, he said, cannot afford this approach any more.

“Would you buy in tough economic times something that does one thing well or something that does 100 things well, and can do things you haven’t even thought about yet,” he asked rhetorically.

“My money is going to go on sensors and command control,” Cartwright told the audience. Architectures — and the systems they serve — must be changeable, ready to adapt to unforeseen threats with ease.

“We have got to be able to string these things together. Get over the traditional barriers about what domains they fly in, or what INT they are in. The guy who gets a bullet between his eyes couldn’t care less,” Cartwright said.

The vice chairman dined with senior congressional aides about a week before the conference and told them much the same thing. "He was signaling to us and to industry that the cuts are going to be deep and the changes substantial," said one congressional aide.

One of the programs believed to be sitting directly in Gates' budget crosshairs is Boeing's Airborne Laser Program. Although the program has funding to complete its first live fire test in fiscal 2009, conventional wisdom for the last few weeks has been that the program will be made a technology demonstrator and lose its status as a program of record.

So on March 23, a bipartisan group of seven congressmen sent Gates a letter saying they "urgently request the ABL remain a robustly funded program." The lawmakers argued that if ABL is not well funded or is cancelled "the promise of speed-of-light and extreme precision...will disappear as well as the fragile industrial base that supports it. In short, we will have wasted the resources that have been well invested since the Clinton administration."

The signers included: powerful Boeing friend Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.); second ranking member on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee; Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas), also a member of the defense subcommittee; Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.); Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM); Rep. Todd Akin (R-Kansas); Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.); and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) All but Dicks and Tiahrt are members of the House Armed Services Committee.

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