Gates: No Need For More Military to Battle Piracy

DOTHAN, Ala. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he doesn't see any immediate need to bulk up the military response to piracy near the Horn of Africa.

He added, however, that "we'll make those decisions as they come along."

Gates, visiting military training and schooling centers this week to sell his reordered budget priorities, praised the precision work of Navy SEAL snipers who killed pirate hostage-takers off the Somali coast on Sunday. Their skill attests to the value of targeted training, he told reporters.

Gates said it may be too soon to tell how lawmakers will treat his $534 billion budget proposal for the coming year. The package rearranges spending to emphasize the smaller, lower-tech wars Gates says the United States is fighting now. He said he has been "pleasantly surprised" that Congress seems to be listening to his argument that tighter budgets and changing war needs will mean that some big weapons programs dear to lawmakers' hearts must go.

Several lawmakers have said they plan to fight for defense programs that mean jobs at home. Gates said no lawmakers have contacted him directly.

"I don't know whether I'm in the eye of the storm," Gates said dryly, noting that Congress returns next week from a recess.

Gates proposes cuts in several aviation programs, including the Air Force F-22 Stealth fighter. But he wants to spend $500 million more to field and maintain helicopters. Some of that work would be done at the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, where Gates visited Tuesday, touring hangars and classrooms at the facility, which trains more than 1,000 Army pilots each year.

Commanders in Afghanistan have complained about too few helicopters for a war in difficult terrain where ground movement is often perilous and slow. Gates said the problem isn't too few helicopters, it's not enough pilots and crews.

His budget plan would devote more money for training and maintenance, and Gates said it will probably buy a few more helicopters too.

Earlier Tuesday, President Barack Obama called Gates' proposals "right on target."

The budget overhaul is a product of Gates' frustration at bloat and parochialism in defense spending, and what he calls a fixation on fighting futuristic wars that don't match current threats.

Lockheed Martin Corp. has said that almost 95,000 jobs — mostly in California, Texas, Georgia and Connecticut — could be at risk if the Pentagon didn't buy more F-22 jets. Boeing Co. and its Capitol Hill supporters have said thousands of jobs in St. Louis and elsewhere could be at risk if the C-17 cargo plane is cut.

Still, the Pentagon's effort to ramp up production of Lockheed's Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35, or protect its shipbuilding industrial base in Bath, Maine, and Pascagoula, Miss., could mean new jobs even as others are lost, analysts said.

To ease the sting of potential job losses, Gates' plan could accelerate the timetable for other programs, including Navy purchases of speedy combat ships made by Lockheed and General Dynamics Corp., congressional aides and analysts said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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