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Mullen calls for creative ideas for military issues

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer on Monday called for more innovative approaches to military challenges, saying that throwing money at new weapons programs wasn’t always the answer.

Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was “extremely supportive” of a 2010 budget plan unveiled by Defence Secretary Robert Gates last month, which calls for big shifts in major weapons programs.

Gates is recommending a $534 billion (355.4 billion pound) defence budget for fiscal year 2010 as part of the $3.4 trillion federal budget plan approved by Congress on Wednesday, not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House is expected to release a more detailed version of the Obama administration’s first budget on Thursday, but some lawmakers have already raised concerns about specific weapons programmes that are slated to end production.

Representative John McHugh, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a column published in the congressional Roll Call newspaper on Monday that he remained “deeply concerned about the trade-offs involved in the so-called re-balancing of the Pentagon.”

Mullen declined to predict whether Congress would ultimately approve the proposed changes, saying lawmakers had a constitutional responsibility to make budget decisions, and they had been exceptionally supportive of the military over time.

The debate is being closely watched by big U.S. defence contractors like Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman Corp, and General Dynamics Corp, and Britain’s BAE Systems Plc.

Mullen said the Pentagon’s work on the budget for fiscal 2010, which begins October 1, the current quadrennial defence review, and planning for the fiscal 2011 budget presented a unique opportunity to find the right balance between conventional and irregular warfare.

“We have a great opportunity to really set ourselves in the right direction for the future,” Mullen told reporters after a speech at a Navy League conference.

Mullen acknowledged that there were “huge challenges” associated with shifting U.S. military priorities but bristled at the suggestion that cancelling some weapons programs and ending production in others put the military at greater risk.

“We need to do a better job about what we mean by risk. The direct equation is you put money in you reduce risk, you take money out you increase risk. And I just don’t agree with that,” said Mullen, who was the Navy’s chief of naval operations before he moved into his current job.

“I put a lot of money into programs where my risk actually went up and those programs are spinning out of control. It’s a more complex equation than just ‘money in, money out,’” he told reporters after telling the conference that problematic programs “don’t have much of a future.”

Mullen said the military services needed to focus more on developing joint capabilities, and implementing lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Funding for nonmilitary solutions, including diplomatic initiatives by the State Department, also needed to be increased.

The services also needed to find “very innovative, creative” approaches to meeting military needs such as growing demand for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as helicopters, Mullen said.

Some of the shifts had already been outlined in the 2010 budget, but more work would be done during the Quadrennial Defence Review of major programs, which was just begun and is expected to wrap up by the end of summer, said Admiral Gary Roughead, the current chief of naval operations.

Roughead said it was premature to predict how programs like General Dynamics’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, facing technology issues and cost overruns, would fare in the big defence review conducted once every four years.

“I don’t think there have been any preconceived notions of what’s in and what’s out,” Roughead said, adding that amphibious capability had proven “extraordinarily valuable” to the U.S. military in recent years.

He said the services were moving towards working better together on common platforms, but there was still work to do.

Marine Corps Commandant James Conway said developing joint requirements was tough, citing the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, which he said had become far too heavy to be of much use to the Marine Corps, especially at a cost of $1.2 billion.

“We’re not interested in a vehicle that comes in at that kind of gross weight,” Conway told the conference. “We’ll simply live with what we got and keep it light if that’s the must in terms of manning.”

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Steve Orlofsky