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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee said on Friday spending on the long-range U.S. antiballistic missile system should be scaled down as part of a belt-tightening on arms purchases.
"I would say we've got to slow that down and properly test it," Sen. Carl Levin told reporters, referring to a ground-based shield managed by Boeing Co that includes interceptor missiles in silos in Alaska and California.
The system is designed to thwart missiles, potentially tipped with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads, that could be fired by countries such as North Korea and Iran.
Outlining his committee's priorities for 2009, Levin said the United States would have to cut or stretch out previously planned arms buying because of a budget crunch arising from efforts to shore up the rapidly declining U.S. economy.
Levin's panel is one of four congressional committees that oversee defense spending.
Improving the way the Pentagon buys tens of billions of dollars worth of arms each year would be a "major initiative" for the committee early this year, the Michigan Democrat said.
Missile defense spending was the only area that he said he would "love to" see cut.
Other programs vulnerable to cuts include shipbuilding programs, Lockheed Martin Corp's F-22 fighter and Boeing's Future Combat Systems, an inter-operable family of air and ground vehicles that is the core of Army modernization.
Levin said he favored spending to replace equipment worn out in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, "even at the expense of modernization" of the U.S. arsenal.
"We have to avoid getting even deeper in the hole than we're going to be, which is plenty deep," Levin said.
He said he expected President Barack Obama to seek significant changes to unspecified acquisition programs.
"I would be surprised if that doesn't happen," Levin said.
The Pentagon's core budget for fiscal 2009 is about $512 billion, including about $9 billion for ballistic missile defense, the costliest weapons development project.
Of the $9 billion, about $3 billion is allocated to long-range missile defense and related antimissile technologies.
Levin said he believed the administration was seriously interested in exploring cooperation with Moscow on missile defense, a move that would "change the entire dynamic vis-a-vis the world and Iran."
He said he expected Obama to send Congress only a barebones "top line" fiscal 2010 defense budget request on Monday, as required by law, with a detailed breakout reflecting the new administration's priorities to follow perhaps by April.
Levin stood by the nomination of former Raytheon Co lobbyist William Lynn as deputy secretary of defense, saying he was awaiting a detailed accounting of the issues on which Lynn had lobbied on Raytheon's behalf before scheduling a committee vote.
"I haven't seen anything that would cause me not to support it," he said. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the panel's top Republican, has raised questions about how Lynn would deal with decisions affecting Raytheon, one of the Pentagon's top suppliers.
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Ted Kerr)
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