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POLITICS-US: New Budget, Not Quite a Fundamental Shift

Daniel Luban and Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Apr 6 2009 (IPS) - Secretary of Defence Robert Gates unveiled the U.S.’s much-anticipated new military budget Monday, which aims to reorient the armed forces toward irregular and counterinsurgency warfare while proposing cuts in several major weapons programs.

The budget is viewed as a major step in the ongoing debate within the U.S. military about whether to focus primarily on conventional warfare against other states or on counterinsurgency operations against non-state actors.

But it is also likely to engender pushback from lawmakers and defence- industry interests who are unhappy about cutbacks in lucrative weapons programmes.

The changes proposed by the new budget – while significant – are far from marking a fundamental reshaping of the U.S. defence establishment, some defence analysts caution.

“They’re calling it a fundamental shift and that’s both true and false,” said Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. “It’s true because their budget proposes the most ambitious set of cuts to well- entrenched weapons systems since the early 1990s.”

“It’s false, though, because this budget perpetuates the upward trajectory of defence spending, it’s higher than any of the Bush budgets that preceded it, and it increases funding for some programs that I think are a mistake,” Pemberton continued.

The 534-million-dollar budget for fiscal year 2010 – which does not take into account the “emergency supplemental” appropriations that pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – marks a slight increase over the Bush administration’s budget for the previous year.

However, the breakdown of this spending will be considerably different from previous years.

“These past few years have revealed underlying flaws in the priorities, cultural preferences and reward structures of America’s defence establishment,” Gates said. “There have been enough studies, enough hand-wringing, enough rhetoric. Now is the time for action.”

Among the most notable cutbacks was the F-22 fighter programme. Gates announced that the Pentagon would end production after buying four more fighters this year.

Rumours that Gates intended to kill the F-22 – which was originally designed in the Cold War to counter Soviet air power – led to a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill and in the media to save the fighter. A highly-publicised March article in the Atlantic by best-selling author Mark Bowden, for example, warned that F-22 cutbacks would be “paid in the blood” of U.S. fighter pilots.

Other cutbacks include missile defence, which will see its budget reduced by 1.4 billion dollars, and the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) modernisation programme – the vehicle component of which will be cancelled.

However, the budget retained or even accelerated other programmes that were viewed as logical targets for cuts, such as the F-35 joint strike fighter. F-35 purchases will be more than doubled from 14 in 2009 to 30 in 2010.

“I would give the budget a B to B-minus,” said William Hartung of the New America Foundation. “They did a little less than half of what I’d hope they’d do. But under Bush they would have done nothing or gone in the other direction.”

If the budget cuts back on some high-profile conventional war programmes, it compensates by dramatically increasing funding for some irregular operations and counterinsurgency programmes.

Notably, Gates announced an additional 2 billion dollars for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance – including an additional 50 Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial drones. The budget also proposes a five percent expansion of Special Operations forces.

Defence analysts also caution that the budget is likely to face major resistance in Congress from lawmakers whose districts benefit from defence spending and who have been recipients of defence industry largesse.

“They are going to have a huge fight on their hands,” Pemberton said. “Defence secretaries have often tried to cut weapons systems to little avail, and this is just the first stage in the process.”

Already, Senators Jeff Session and Richard Shelby of Alabama have signalled their displeasure with the budget by placing a hold on the nomination of Ashton Carter, who was slated to become the administration’s undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology, and logistics.

The debate over the budget has divided many in the military into what are sometimes called the “this-war” and “next-war” camps – that is, those focusing on the needs of the current counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those focusing on the potential needs of a future conflict against a state such as China.

Gates is widely considered to be one of the leaders of the “this-war” camp. On Tuesday, he warned against devoting resources to “over-insure against remote or diminishing risk[s]” or to “run up the score” in areas where the U.S. is already dominant at the expense of capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But he also argued that the new budget did not mark a radical shift away from conventional warfare, and that only about 10 percent of its spending would be devoted to irregular warfare.

“This is not about irregular warfare putting the conventional capabilities in the shade,” he said. “This is just a matter of giving the irregular-war constituency a seat at the table for the first time.”

At the moment, the “irregular-war constituency” appears to be ascendant in Washington and at the Pentagon. Prominent counterinsurgency advocates include Gen. David Petraeus, now the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) overseeing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and Lt. Col. John Nagl, president of the influential think tank Centre for a New American Security (CNAS).

But counterinsurgency also has its critics. Some – particularly on the right – warn against focusing on non-state actors and neglecting conventional capabilities and threats from state powers.

“[Former defence secretary Donald] Rumsfeld denigrated the human element of warfare to focus on high-tech innovation,” wrote Kori Schake, a Hoover Institution fellow and West Point professor, on the Foreign Policy website. “His successor is about to make the reverse mistake.”

Others charge that counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on long-term nation-building commitments is frequently used as a justification or smokescreen for maintaining a long-term U.S. imperial posture throughout the world.

“By calling for an Army configured mostly to wage stability operations, [counterinsurgency advocates are] effectively affirming the Long War as the organising principle of post-9/11 national-security strategy, with U.S. forces called upon to bring light to those dark corners of the world where terrorists flourish,” wrote Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and former Army colonel, in March.

“In this sense, Nagl’s reform agenda, if implemented, will serve to validate – and perpetuate – the course set by President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.”

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