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Defense spending is about to enter a steep decline that may force the Pentagon to abandon some military missions, shrink the armed forces and perhaps limit America's role in the world, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.
In one of his final policy speeches before retiring next month, Gates said he has been disappointed by Pentagon efforts thus far to find budget savings. But he also cautioned that further cuts on the scale proposed by some -- including President Barack Obama -- will require tough decisions on eliminating some weapons and overseas missions.
Gates did not spell out his own vision for how to manage such reductions. But he identified several weapons as "absolutely critical" for the future -- including a new fleet of aerial refueling planes, more Navy ships and a new fleet of nuclear armed submarines.
In remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank that is generally hostile to defense spending cuts, Gates said it is time to acknowledge that the post-2001 years of nearly unquestioned defense spending, similar to Cold War expenditures, have come to an end.
"We're not going to see a return to Cold War-level defense budgets," Gates said, citing a "bleak fiscal outlook" for the U.S.
"The money and political support simply aren't there," he said.
Gates, who succeeded Donald H. Rumsfeld in December 2006, said he has already reduced or eliminated spending in the most obvious areas.
"The `low-hanging fruit' -- those weapons and other programs considered most questionable -- have not only been plucked, they have been stomped and crushed," he said.
And while further reductions are unavoidable, some weapons should be exempt from the budget axe, Gates said. He cited a new aerial refueling plane for the Air Force, a next-generation fleet of F-35 strike aircraft to maintain a margin of superiority over Russia and China, more ships and "at some point" a replacement for the Navy's fleet of ballistic missile submarines.
Gates called for a review of basic defense strategy to ensure that budget cuts are suited to the kind of military and security power the U.S. believes it needs in the years ahead. He started the review after Obama announced on April 13 that he wanted another $400 billion in defense savings over the next 12 years.
"If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military, people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country," Gates said.
"They need to understand what it could mean for a smaller pool of troops and their families if America is forced into a protracted land war again -- yes, the kind no defense secretary should recommend anytime soon, but one we may not be able to avoid."
Gates is leaving to his designated successor, Leon Panetta, the tough task of meeting White House and congressional demands for new budget savings while the nation is still at war. But before he goes, Gates said he wants to ensure that decisions are based on a broad review of future military needs.
"If the political leadership of this country decides that it must reduce the investment in defense by hundreds of billions of dollars, then I don't think we can afford to have anything that's `off the table,'" Gates told reporters last week when asked whether the review would consider eliminating part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Gates has said that all three "legs" of the U.S. strategy nuclear force -- bombers, land-based missiles and nuclear-armed submarines -- are due for expensive modernization.
"You may have to make some choices there," he said April 21, implying that one of those components might have to be dropped.
That is the kind of choice that Gates previously had said need not be made. In warning last August against "steep and unwise" reductions in defense spending, Gates argued that he already had cut as much as was advisable.
"The current and planned defense budgets, which project modest but steady growth, represent the minimum level of spending necessary to sustain a military at war and to protect our interests and future capabilities in a dangerous and unstable world," he said then.
Some in Congress are pushing to cut defense even more deeply as part of a broader effort to shrink the government's deepening budget deficits; the shortfall in the current budget year alone is expected to reach $1.5 trillion.
That political momentum is reinforced by a perception that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to an end, and that the killing of Osama bin Laden means the war on terror is winding down. Gates, however, is quick to point out that Afghanistan remains unstable and military crises tend to erupt without long lead times.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP.