The Department of Defense must ensure new technology is more mature before permitting programs such as missile defense systems to advance toward full-rate production, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said.

Gates was asked by Space & Missile Defense Report about language in the federal budget outline for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, that President Obama sent to Congress, which says that technologies should be more mature before advancing toward acquisition. Would that provision freeze or delay missile defense programs such as the Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor and European Missile Defense system until their technologies were fully mature? Each of them is in development, rather than operational.

“What I would say is that one of the things that we have been moving toward in terms of acquisition reform is ensuring that technology was more mature before moving to full- scale production,” Gates replied.

He explained that the new emphasis on proceeding only when technologies are mature isn’t iron clad, applying in every circumstance in every program. But, he continued, there must be a very sound reason for making an exception and proceeding in any program that doesn’t have mature technology.

“If we decide to take a risk with technology, it needs to be a conscious decision that we’re going [to] take that risk and that everybody knows we’re taking a risk for a specific reason, rather than stumbling into it and getting into production and realizing there were problems with the technology,” Gates said.

One shouldn’t trust that technology will work out well until it is proven, he said.

“There needs to be greater discipline in the process, particularly with respect to the maturity of technology, before we begin full-scale production,” he said.

However, he said the language in the Obama budget wasn’t written solely to apply to any particular program, “that I’m aware of.”

Obama himself spoke of reforming the way the military buys missiles and other items, as he addressed a joint session of Congress in a speech similar to a State of the Union Address.

The military must “reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use,” he said.

Gates spoke in briefing defense journalists at the Pentagon.

Cuts are coming in major defense acquisition programs, Gates warned, echoing prior statements he has made.

“We will be making tough choices,” he said.

Asked whether his prior comment still applies, that the spigot of defense spending opened by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is now closing, he said, “I think so.”

Still, he noted that last summer he thought if the military budget just kept pace with inflation in fiscal 2010, the Department of Defense would “be doing very well.”

As it turned out, the military did a bit better than that, he said.

While some fiscal breathing room may be created by Obama’s plan to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Gates cautioned against expecting an immediate windfall.

For example, “you’re still going to have a fairly robust presence, fairly significant presence in Iraq, regardless of what the president’s decisions are, at least through” fiscal 2010, or part of fiscal 2010, he said.

“And at the same time, we will be funding an increase in Afghanistan. And in contrast to Iraq, where there is a better infrastructure and where we have access to surrounding countries with infrastructure, we are essentially having to build that infrastructure for our forces in Afghanistan. So there are additional costs with that.”

Gates cautioned those hoping for a cornucopia of spare money to flow from withdrawal of troops.

“Withdrawing those forces is going to involve an added cost of its own, because, for the last while — I don’t know the exact time, but the last several years — the forces — the soldiers and Marines we have sent to Iraq have basically fallen in on equipment that has been left there.

“Now we’re talking about pulling them out, not only the troops, but the equipment as well. And so there’s an added cost associated with that as well.”

A general in Iraq cannot, for example, use parcel post to send a Humvee back to the United States.

Thus, on an immediate basis, the drawdown may actually cause an increase in costs and spending.

The fiscal 2010 Obama budget outline laid out priorities, where he wishes to increase the number of personnel in the Army and Marine Corps to reduce the strain of repeated deployments to war zones, with overall Department of Defense (DOD) outlays rising about $20.4 billion or 4 percent, while cutting money spent on weapons systems.

“At the same time, the president will pursue a reform of the acquisition process to make sure that funds are not being wasted on expensive and outdated weapons systems,” the budget plan notes.

The Obama budget plan comes after years of effort developing missile defense systems, a cutting-edge Zumwalt Class destroyer, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, the Army Future Combat Systems plan to acquire new vehicles, aircraft and more, a new Marine One presidential transport helicopter, and an array of other items.

“We know that DOD’s new weapons programs are among the largest, most expensive and technically difficult that the department has ever tried to develop,” the budget plan states. “Consequently, they carry a high risk of performance failure, cost increases and schedule delays. With this in mind, the administration if committed to reforming the defense acquisition process so that taxpayer dollars are not wasted. The administration will set realistic requirements and stick to them.”

One factor driving cost overruns on major weapons programs is that military leaders add new requirements that the hardware must meet, long after contracts have been awarded, a process called “requirements creep.”

The Obama budget plan opposes changing requirements late in the game, and also pledges to bar programs from proceeding “from one stage of the acquisition cycle to the next until they have achieved the maturity to significantly lower the risk of cost growth and schedule slippage.”

On the other hand, while cuts are coming for military programs, diplomatic programs will do better, with the Obama budget proposing to double foreign aid money and to increase the size of the foreign service at the State Department, headed by former Obama president campaign rival and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Obama budget also would provide more personnel for the U.S. Agency for International Development.