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Obama to Increase Troop Numbers, Rethink Spending

Wednesday, 25 Feb 2009 08:04 AM

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WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said his upcoming budget would increase the number of US soldiers, state the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cut "Cold War-era" weapons programs.

Setting out his priorities for military spending, Obama said late Tuesday in his first address to a joint session of Congress that he wanted to provide relief to men and women in uniform with higher pay and a larger ground force.

The statements come amid news reports that Obama is set to order the bulk of US military forces to withdraw from Iraq by August 2010.

"To relieve the strain on our forces, my budget increases the number of our soldiers and Marines," Obama said in the speech.

"And to keep our sacred trust with those who serve, we will raise their pay, and give our veterans the expanded health care and benefits that they have earned."

More than seven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have put unprecedented pressure on the all-volunteer military and their families, with top officers blaming a recent spike in suicides in the army on the relentless pace of deployments.

Obama's promise to raise the number of soldiers and Marines appears in line with the military's plans to expand its ground forces by nearly 100,000 troops.

Vowing to restore "honesty and accountability" to government spending, Obama said his budget "for the first time includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price," he said to applause.

Obama's jab at former president George W. Bush referred to his predecessor's controversial method of accounting for the cost of the two wars through "supplemental" funding requests outside of the main defense budget.

He said his administration would scrap wasteful contract work in Iraq and impose tough scrutiny on mammoth weapons systems that grew out of the Cold War, though he offered no specifics.

"We'll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq, and reform our defense budget so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use," Obama said.

The 612 billion dollar defense authorization bill signed by Bush in September represented the largest in real terms since World War II, and probably the peak of a seven-year buildup dating to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

With a grave economic crisis and an expected 1.3 trillion dollar deficit, big cuts are expected in the vast US defense budget -- which represents more than 40 percent of the world's total military spending.

Administration officials hope some of the savings will come from a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, where 142,000 troops are stationed.

Obama is close to issuing an order to withdraw the bulk of US military forces from Iraq by August 2010, the New York Times reported Wednesday, citing senior administration officials.

The order would give the US military 19 months to pull out, three months more than the promise Obama made while campaigning for president in 2008.

However tens of thousands of US troops - it is unclear exactly how many - would remain "to continue training Iraqi security forces, hunt down foreign terrorist cells and guard American institutions," the Times reported.

The president has not made a final decision, administration officials told the Times, but could complete the review and announce the plan later this week.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already warned of major budget cutbacks, citing expensive weapons programs such as the F-22 fighter aircraft as possible targets.

"It's obviously one of the programs that, along with a number of others - many others - that we will be looking at," Gates said earlier this month.

The United States cannot "eliminate national-security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything," Gates wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

The military has struggled to strike a balance between the demands of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to prepare for conventional warfare as a hedge against rising powers like China.

Gates has made clear that counter-insurgency is the immediate priority, and that new ships, sophisticated aircraft and a network of hi-tech army vehicles may be of little use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Candidates for possible cuts include the F-22 Raptor fighters, which cost about 350 million dollars each; the F-35 and F-18E/F aircraft; the Navy's new generation destroyer; and computer-linked Army vehicles known as Future Combat Systems.

© 2009 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

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