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Washington, D.C. —  Senator John Thune today questioned Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the Obama administration's plan to terminate the Next Generation Bomber program at a full Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Secretary Gates had previously expressed support for the Next Generation Bomber, but the budget submitted recently by President Obama cancels the program entirely. Senator Thune also introduced the Preserving Future United States Capability to Project Power Globally Act of 2009 today to require the Defense Department to continue the next generation bomber development program during Fiscal Year 2010.

"Four months ago Secretary Gates defended the need for a new bomber to meet the national security challenges we will face in the future," said Thune. "Now the program appears to be cancelled, and it is important to know if the Defense Department has decided the program is no longer necessary and why, or if the program was seen as nothing more than a dollar figure that the Obama administration would prefer to direct toward other spending programs.

"America faces dangerous threats around the globe, and we will face new threats in the future. Terminating the Next Generation Bomber program weakens our ability to defend our nation, and this move by the Administration endorses the practice of raiding critical defense projects to pay for bloated budgets."

The Air Force had planned to field the Next Generation Bomber by 2018. Ellsworth Air Force Base is seen as a potential bed-down location for the bomber.

An unofficial transcript of Senator Thune's exchange with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen follows:

Senator Thune: Mr. Secretary I want to raise an issue with which probably comes as no surprise. On April the 7th at a media roundtable you said that the 2010 defense budget recommendations that you announced on April the 6th are "basically an outgrowth of positions that I've been taking in speeches for the last 18 months" and that your decisions "didn't spring all of a sudden full grown out of the brow of Zeus in the last three months." But, I think it's fair to say that the decision on the Next Generation Bomber must have sprung full grown out of the brow of Zeus in the last three months. I want to point back to something you said eight months ago during a speech at the National Defense University where you said that China's, and again I quote, "investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines and ballistic missiles could threaten America's primary means to project power and help allies in the Pacific. This will put a premium on America's ability to strike from over the horizon, employ missile defenses and will require shifts from short range to long range systems such as the Next Generation Bomber." And you use virtually the same language in an article for the first quarter 2009 edition of Joint Force Quarterly as well as in a Foreign Affairs article in January of this year. And so for several months prior to that April 6th announcement you had established a clear record of support for the next generation bomber. On April the 6th you announced that the department would not pursue a development program for the follow-on air force bomber. My question is, what changed between January and April to make you question the need for the Next Generation Bomber and how do you reconcile clearly positions that are contradictory with regard to that weapons system?

Secretary Gates: Actually this is one of the issues, Senator, where I felt we did not have enough analysis to make a firm decision. So it is one of the issues that will be addressed both in the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Nuclear Posture Review. My own personal view is we probably do need a follow on bomber. But I think we need to see what, if you look at both of those studies, the QDR and the Nuclear Posture Review, and you observe what is going on in the arms control negotiations with Russia, in particular on nuclear forces, I think all of those things will shape what decision needs to be made with respect to a Next Generation Bomber. One of the reasons that I said we would cancel the studies or the effort that was underway at the time was, based on consultation with the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman and others, our concern was that if we didn't do that, that when these studies were done there would be a kind of linear projection of the thinking that had existed before the studies were done in terms of exactly what kind of plane should be built. One of the things I think we need to think about is whether, for example, the follow on bomber needs to have a pilot in it. And so I think that this is one of those issues that I didn't make a decision against going forward with the Next Generation Bomber, but rather said let's wait and see what the result, let's examine this in the QDR and the Nuclear Posture Review and then make a decision on where we go with the Next Generation Bomber.

Senator Thune: Well in response to a question that was posed by Senator Inhofe earlier, you said that the last QDR, the 2006 QDR, shaped and informed a lot of your decisions. And in the 2006 QDR, reports to field the follow on bomber by 2018. And so, I guess my question is what part of that QDR has been invalidated or what has changed in terms of the threat based analysis that in your mind modifies or changes that requirement? I mean it is pretty clearly articulated in the 2006 QDR and if that is actually what helped shape many of your decisions with respect to the decisions you have made recently.

Secretary Gates: Well, I mean, the reality is that we have a lot more experience in the last 2 to 3 years with unmanned aerial vehicles than they had at the time that the last QDR was put together. Also, we basically weren't going anywhere at the time of the last QDR, in terms of significant potential for further arms reduction with the Russians. And I think depending on where those numbers come out, it is going to affect how we shape the triad or raise the question whether we still need a triad, depending on the number of deployed nuclear weapons that we need.

Senator Thune: It doesn't seem that those discussions with Russia, though, ought to have an impact on whether or not we are developing a Next Generation Bomber. And secondly, I think that, and you've had experience in some of those arms reduction negotiations in the past, if they are supposed to conclude by the end of this year, I would be very surprised if they will. And this could extend some time into the future. So making a decision like this right now, I guess to me, becomes a question of whether or not this is driven more by budget decisions and trying to get under the top line of the defense budget or whether it is driven by requirements. And I guess that would be my question. Did OMB say you've got to terminate this program?

Secretary Gates: No, I don't remember what their pass back said. But frankly, I took some of their suggestions from the pass back and didn't take a lot of others. This really was not a top line or a budget driven figure because the amount of money in the budget for FY10 for Next Generation Bomber was very small.

Senator Thune: What did the Air Force recommend on this?

Admiral Mullen: Actually, I think they had it in until the decisions were made. But if I could just speak a little to this. And this actually goes to Senator Chambliss' comments as well. We are at a real time of transition here in terms of the future of aviation and the whole issue of what's going to be manned and what's going to be unmanned; what's going to be stealthy, what isn't; how do we address these threats. This is all part, and it's changing, even from 2006. And I think, from a war fighting perspective, this is at the heart of what we need to look at for the future, whether it's fighters or bombers. Then the essence of this discussion is, despite analysis which may have been out there in the past, or some other requirement. And a service requirement, which quite frankly is a service requirement, it doesn't make it a Department of Defense requirement necessarily. So what the aviation side of this is, I think, is very much focused on this change. And I think we're at the beginning of this change. I mean there are those who see JSF as the last manned fighter or fighter bomber or jet. And I'm one that's inclined to believe that. I don't know if that's exactly right. But this all speaks to the change that goes out, obviously decades, including how much unmanned we are going to have and how it's going to be resourced.

Senator Thune: We've had a lot of combatant commanders in front of this committee who've testified to the need for this capability. And also, to the concern about the aging fleet and the fact that half of our bombers are pre-Cuban Missile Crisis era bombers and being able to persist and penetrate some of the more sophisticated air defense systems that we're expecting to encounter in the future. So it seems like a very relevant, very real-time question. But I guess my final question is this, what I hear you saying is you are still analyzing and looking at this. What OMB's budget said is terminated. So is this delayed, is this terminated, what is this?

Secretary Gates: The program that was on the books is terminated. The idea of a Next Generation Bomber, as far as I'm concerned, is a very open question. And the recommendation will come out of the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Nuclear Posture Review. And I certainly don't want to leave the impression that the Russians are going to help us decide whether or not we have a Next Generation Bomber. What I was trying to say is if it looks like we're headed for a lower number of deployed nuclear weapons then we will have to make a recommendation to the president and to you as to how we allocate those weapons among missiles, submarines and aircraft.

Senator Thune: Thank you.