WASHINGTON– Discussions within the administration about the fiscal 2010 defense budget have been cordial and productive, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today, but department leaders are prepared to make tough choices.

Gates also spoke about the White House-ordered Afghanistan strategic review.

Office of Management and Budget officials said the Defense Department budget’s “top line” will be released in the next few weeks, with the complete request coming in April.

“Irrespective of what the budget top line ultimately is … this department faces difficult choices among competing priorities and programs,” Gates said. “I believe we must make those choices.”

The secretary said leaders are looking at the budget in terms of efficiencies to be realized, programs with serious execution issues, and strategic reshaping to make sure the budget reflects the need to balance current and future capabilities and the president’s priorities.

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, the Defense Department has received supplemental appropriations to cover their cost. Last year, Congress made it clear that the predictable war costs should be placed in the base budget. “The department’s budget proposal put together last year with a much higher top line was an attempt to begin this process,” Gates said.

But given the economic environment, it will not be possible to do this as fast as the department would like, the secretary said. “Nonetheless, there is broad agreement that’s the direction we should go, and I’m confident that over time we will get there,” he told reporters.

The White House has ordered a strategic review for Afghanistan. The commander of NATO and U.S. forces there, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, has asked for more military capabilities. The U.S. contribution would be between 20,000 and 30,000 additional forces. The review will not be finished until April, Gates said, but that does not mean deployments to the country will halt.

“There is a realization that some decisions have to be made before the strategic review is completed,” he said, “if only because if he does decide to send at least an additional brigade combat team, … the next one to go would need to be notified pretty quickly.”

The secretary said he has made recommendations to Obama on the way forward in Afghanistan. “I think it’s a very constructive, deliberative process,” the secretary said. “This is the first time that this president has been asked to deploy large numbers of troops overseas, and it seems to me a thoughtful and deliberate approach to that decision is entirely appropriate.”

Gates said there is no cap to the number of American troops that could go to Afghanistan, but he would be leery of any deployments beyond the number of troops under consideration.

“I worry a lot about the size of the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan,” he said. “Once we have satisfied General McKiernan’s request, … then I think and I hope that the strategic review that’s under way will sort of point a path forward in terms of what we think the right number or the right size of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan should be.”

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