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Friday, 19 December 2008

From Today's Papers - 19 Dec



Army told to wait for Made-in-India night vision devices, Pakistan has the latest from US

Manu Pubby Posted online: Dec 19, 2008 at 0141 hrs

New Delhi : By the looks of it, the Army has an impressive Infantry, the second largest in the world, backed by a solid armoured thrust of over 3,000 tanks that can overwhelm the western front. But as soon as the sun goes down, the Army gets affected by a deadly case of night blindness.

For all practical purposes, the Army is fighting blind at night. Its soldiers face a glaring shortage of night vision devices, the ones in service are a generation behind what Pakistan already has and only 10 per cent of its tanks have a proven night-fighting capability.

In a modern scenario where most battles are fought under the cover of darkness, the inability to even see the enemy is crippling the war capabilities of the Army. While the top leadership is acutely aware of the shortcoming, efforts to procure new night vision devices for soldiers has been stuck in a tussle between the Army and the Defence PSU Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL).

At the crux of the matter is the Army requirement of new “third generation” night vision devices for soldiers and night sights for rifles. The Army currently has second generation devices which are termed more of a hindrance than an asset. The difference is in the capability to see at night. Pakistan, on the other hand, has got a range of third generation devices from the US under the War on Terror pact.

The Army is keen to speedily buy new generation devices but BEL, which has invested in second generation sights and even set up a factory, has told the Ministry of Defence that all procurements should be made through the PSU.

While BEL has asked the Army to wait till it finds a foreign partner to manufacture third generation devices “indigenously”, it is nowhere near a possible tie-up. The problem is that foreign companies are not keen on sharing technology with a PSU and would rather tie up with private players for “hassle free” production.

As this tussle continues between the Army and BEL, stuck in the middle is the Infantry that is made aware every night that it is not fighting fit to take on the enemy. The night sights on its light machine guns, for example, are so power ineffective that their batteries drain out within two hours. Persistent efforts to get new improved batteries from BEL have hit a roadblock.

The Army is now looking at ways to skirt the PSU wrangle. A new tender to replace WW II-era sten machine guns with 4.5 lakh carbines, for example, has a requirement of night vision integrated in the contract. This contract too got stuck for several years in the PSU wrangle after both DRDO and the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) made efforts to push forward their “indigenous” products to the armed forces. While both were turned down, a global tender was issued this year to meet the requirement. But it will take at least five years before the Army gets to see the new carbines.

Adding to the shortage is the fact that the Defence Ministry has not revised the inventory holding of Infantry for several decades. Each section, comprising 10 soldiers, is currently authorized only one night vision device. While the ideal holding will be 10, the Army is currently pressing for at least 50 per cent of its soldiers to be equipped with night vision devices.

The Armoured Corps too, is facing an acute problem in the same area. Except for the 310 T-90 tanks it procured from Russia, all other tanks do not have any proven night fighting device. This constitutes just 10 per cent of the Army’s holding of tanks. The T-72 tanks that form the bulk of the Armoured Corps are being fitted with night fighting capabilities but the results so far have not been satisfactory.

Efforts are on to modernize some 1,200 T-72 tanks that will remain in service with the new Thermal Imaging Fire Control Systems, Night Fighting systems and Laser Warning systems to enhance their service life. But like many tenders, the first effort to refurbish the tanks in 2004 ended in disappointment. A fresh tender is now being issued to modernize the tanks but will take at least four years to fructify.

While the Infantry doesn’t have the classical problems of “boots on the ground”, it is desperately short on officers to lead them, still fights blind at night and doesn’t even have enough bullet-proof jackets for soldiers fighting insurgency.

With a shortage of over 11,000 officers, the biggest concern of the Infantry, experts say, is to find leaders to take troops to battle. While the demographic pattern of officers in the Army has undergone a massive change in the past decade, the sheer shortage of officers has had a crippling effect at operational levels.

“Today, my biggest worry is the manpower situation and morale of the armed forces. The Infantry has less than two-third of the authorized level of officers. That is a big gap,” says former Army Chief General VP Malik.

Unlike western forces, the Army has always been heavily dependent on officers to lead soldiers in war. The current strength of officers is just 76 per cent of the authorized levels. The force structure calls for young officers leading from the front but ironically, most shortages are at these very ranks.

This, coupled with the fact that the Army is becoming top heavy is eroding its fighting capabilities. “Today, I find that headquarters (at different levels) have become top heavy. Many officers have landed up at headquarters but the combat power has got eroded. At battalions, the people who fight, there are about 10-12 officers against the authorized strength of 22,” says Gen Malik.

Another glaring deficiency is in protective bullet proof jackets for soldiers. While countries like the US are making moves to make the life saving accessory standard issue for all soldiers, the Army is hard pressed to even equip all soldiers in counter-insurgency operations with the jackets. With low weight jackets in low supply, soldiers on high risk missions like night patrolling or road opening parties are issued BPJs from a common pool as per need.

An ambitious “soldier as a system” plan (F INSAS) to provide troops a GPS-based navigation system, light-weight communication equipment, new BPJs, light weight guns and a helmet with a built-in head-up display by DRDO is still years away from getting approved.

The estimated Rs 7,000 crore project, which has been hanging in limbo for the past five year, was supposed to go in for trials by 2012 but the current pace of work, experts say, will make it difficult to start testing the system for at least a decade.

While things are marginally better for the Armoured Corps, the decisive edge is still missing and the thrusting arm of the forces is battling with its own set of problems. The Army is extremely happy with its new T-90 Main Battle Tanks that were inducted after the Kargil conflict but the pace of indigenous manufacturing of the machine is a problem area.

While 310 tanks have been inducted already, the trouble began when fully indigenous production was started by the OFB. As of February this year, only 5 tanks had been fully manufactured in the country mainly due to delays in transfer of technology by Russia. tion.

“Our deterrence is less effective. When people are watching our state of affairs, they are less deterred and try to take liberties. The prevention level (of the armed forces) is weak,” says Gen Malik.

Tomorrow: The Navy’s problems

Mumbai attack jolts defence ministry into action

18 Dec 2008, 0150 hrs IST, Rajat Pandit, TNN

NEW DELHI: It has taken a terror attack like 26/11 to jolt the government out of its deep slumber as far as the operational preparedness of the armed forces to tackle hostile state as well as non-state actors is concerned.

Defence minister A K Antony, on his part, held yet another meeting of the three Service chiefs - Admiral Sureesh Mehta, General Deepak Kapoor and Air Chief Marshal F H Major - on Thursday to review the overall security situation as well as take stock of the "preparedness'' of the armed forces to meet any eventuality.

While Antony may have publicly held on Tuesday that India was not planning any cross-border strikes at this stage, sources said the "military option was still very much open'' if Pakistan does not deliver "on our demands''. “And as such, this has been conveyed even to the US,” said a source.

Towards this end, the minister asked the armed forces to be "fully geared up'' to face any challenge or threat that may arise. As for homeland security, he asked the forces to ensure the security of land and maritime borders as well as vital coastal and offshore assets.

The forces were also asked to establish "suitable mechanisms'' to share, coordinate, analyze and follow-up "all relevant'' intelligence inputs. This, of course, is a fallout of 26/11, which once again glaringly exposed the lack of the "critical connectivity'' needed between intelligence agencies like RAW and IB and security agencies like Navy and Coast Guard.

In the blame-game which erupted after 26/11, the intelligence agencies accused Navy and Coast Guard of allowing the marine Lashkars to slip through to the Mumbai coast, but the forces held that the inputs provided to them were "simply not actionable''.

That apart, from huge gaps in the country's air defence coverage and pathetic coastal security infrastructure to the fast depleting number of fighter squadrons and submarines, the armed forces hope the government will now finally fast-track procurement projects stuck in bureaucratic red-tape for several years.

Interestingly, Antony on Thursday also "reviewed in detail'' the stage of the acquisition process of "certain critical equipment'' needed by armed forces. As reported by TOI earlier, the fledgling marine police of coastal states continue to function without the 204 patrol boats promised to them three years ago.

Then, the Coast Guard is grappling with just 43 ships, 18 boats/crafts, 23 non-commissioned boats and 45 aircraft, as against an "assessed requirement'' of 154 ships, 93 boats and 105 aircraft. It also suffers from a huge "capability gap'' in surface surveillance, shallow-water operations and aerial surveillance.

Similar problems dog the Army, IAF and Navy. TOI has highlighted several such cases over time. Here are three of them:

IAF's case for a wide array of new radars has been largely stuck for 17-18 years now, leaving several gaping holes in its existing airspace surveillance. Its holding of low-level transportable radars, which provide cover against aerial threats operating up to a height of 2 km, for instance, is only 24% of the actual requirement.

The Army's Rs 12,000-crore artillery modernization plan -- which includes procurement of 400 towed and 180 wheeled self-propelled 155mm 52-calibre guns -- is yet to take off after the Bofors scandal of mid-1980s, leading to a serious depletion in accurate high-volume firepower.

Leave apart the absence of nuclear submarines, Navy is faced with a severe depletion of its conventional underwater arm itself. It just has a rapidly-ageing fleet of 10 Russian Kilo-class, four German HDW and two virtually-obsolete Foxtrot submarines.

At any given time, only half of them are fully-operational. The Navy, of course, has finally got the long-delayed Rs 18,798-crore project to construct six French Scorpene killer submarines at Mazagon Docks in Mumbai but they will be delivered only from 2012 onwards, if all goes well.

Mumbai Heat
No violation of Pak air space: India
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 18
India today asserted that it had not violated the Pakistani airspace as has been alleged by Islamabad in a note verbale handed over to the Indian mission in the neighbouring country.

Responding to questions, external affairs ministry spokesman Vishnua Prakash told the media, “Today morning the Pakistani foreign office handed to our mission in Islamabad a note verbale alleging airspace violations by an Indian aircraft five days ago. These same allegations were first reported in the Pakistani and international media for several days and are a part of Pakistani disinformation campaign.”

The spokesman said it had been made clear by India to Pakistan when these news reports appeared that no violations of the Pakistani airspace by the Indian aircraft had taken place.

This was also conveyed to the Pakistani side when the Pakistan director general of military operations (DGMO) raised it verbally with his Indian counterpart on December 16, three days after the alleged violations.

“The note verbale given by the Pakistani foreign office today will be examined and responded to appropriately by the Government of India,” the spokesman added.

Islamabad: India’s deputy high commissioner Manpreet Vohra was handed over a note regarding the alleged airspace violations by Pakistan’s additional secretary (South Asia) Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry during a meeting at the Foreign Office this morning. The note conveyed Pakistan’s concerns about the incident and sought an explanation from India. — PTI

Army to grill ISI agent
Tribune News Service

Lucknow, December 18
Senior Army officials have arrived in Lucknow today to interrogate the suspected ISI agent Abdul Jabbar, alias Sikandar, who was arrested from Lucknow railway station yesterday with sensitive documents about the Army.

Additional director-general (law and order) Brijlal said Sikander had been remanded to police custody for seven days and during that period he would be interrogated by the Army along with the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS).

Refusing to divulge the significance of the sensitive documents seized from him when he was arrested from the Charbagh police station, Brijlal said it was premature to speak about it. “We would know the exact details only after the Army officers finish interrogating him”, he said. Brijlal denied any negligence along the Indo-Nepal border in the state through which Sikander had sneaked in.

Responding to a question regarding the ISI agent slipping in from Nepal despite the Chief Minister regularly alerting the police and media about the porous nature of the country’s international borders Brijlal said that both central forces and the state police were vigilant and this had led to the arrest of Sikander and several other reported terrorists earlier.

Home ministry prunes security of 50 VIPs

New Delhi, December 18
In the wake of public criticism about “excessive” security for VIPs, the union home ministry has scaled down the security cover of at least 50 VIPs, including cabinet ministers.

Ministry sources said a through check of all VIPs enjoying protection has been conducted and it was found that they had a cover of security personnel more than their entitlement.

These included at least two cabinet ministers, three union ministers of state, high court judges, parliament members, journalists, former bureaucrats and retired IPS officers, the sources said. The sources said six personnel were withdrawn from two cabinet ministers who were entitled to “Y” category security.

A former IPS officer, who is enjoying Z-plus category, had to see a cut of over two dozen security personnel.

The security personnel for some journalists, including that of a vernacular daily, was reduced from 169 to 84.

The home ministry is expected to review the security cover of all other VIPs and would scale it down wherever it was not necessary, the sources said. — PTI

Antony meets service chiefs
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 18
The chiefs of the three armed services today briefed defence minister A.K. Antony on the level of preparedness to tackle security related scenarios, including an Indo-Pak conflict.

The defence minister today met the three chiefs and also defence ministry officials to review the overall security situation and to take stock of the state of preparedness of the armed forces.

According to sources, directions to speed up the acquisition of critical equipment and weapons for the defence forces are expected to be issued shortly.

“The position with regard to certain critical equipment and the status of ongoing acquisition was reviewed in detail,” the official said. It was expected that acquisition of defence equipment would be hastened keeping in mind the urgent needs of the security forces.

The meeting also reviewed the security of coastal and offshore assets. A mechanism for proper analysis and follow-up on intelligence inputs is expected to be put in place soon. The issue is likely to come up again when a meeting on coastal security is held over the weekend.

Assets on the coastline like refineries and offshore oil-rigs were also discussed with a view to ensure that these remained fully secure.

Intelligence sharing was one area, which was found wanting during the Mumbai terror attacks and the same was discussed with the minister wanting a coordinated sharing between the security forces.

The defence minister asked the three chiefs to put a suitable mechanism in place to ensure proper analysis and follow-up of all relevant inputs related to the security of the country, they said.

BrahMos test-fired
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 18
BrahMos, a supersonic cruise missile with a strike-range of 290 km, was today successfully test-fired from a new specialised vertical launch configuration in the Bay of Bengal by the Indian Navy.

With its launch, BrahMos has become the world's first and only supersonic cruise missile capable of being launched from both vertical and inclined positions from naval platforms. The test-fire was carried out from a moving ship. The vertical launcher used in the test has been designed and developed by the Indo-Russian joint venture, BrahMos Corporation.

The mission objectives of the test were fully achieved, a spokesperson of the DRDO said.

The BrahMos would be installed in vertical launch configuration in all the future ships of the Indian Navy.

India Test Fires Brahmos Supersonic Missile

New Delhi
India Thursday test fired the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, one of the most successful products of India-Russia military joint venture, from a vertical platform in the Bay of Bengal.

“The BrahMos Missile has been successfully launched today (Thursday) from a naval warship in the Bay of Bengal. This unique launch has been carried out from a mobile platform and all mission objectives have been met,” a DRDO official said.

This is for the first time that BrahMos has been test fired from a universal vertical launcher fitted in a new ship. All earlier launches of BrahMos missiles had been carried out from inclined launchers.

“It is a significant milestone in view of the fact that most present day ships are today fitted with vertical launchers,” the official said.

The missile has a range of nearly 300 km and carries a conventional warhead of 300 kg. It can achieve speeds of up to 2.8 Mach or nearly three times the speed of sound.

The supersonic missile takes its name from the Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers and can be launched from submarines, ships, aircraft or land.

Pakistan Conveys Protest
Over Alleged Airspace Violation

By Muhammad Najeeb

Islamabad
Pakistan has conveyed its protest to India over the alleged violation of its airspace by Indian fighter planes. Meanwhile, President Asif Ali Zardari is likely to request Afghan President Hamid Karzai to close down Indian consulate offices near the Pakistan-Afghan border as they were "creating problems" for Islamabad.

The Pakistan Foreign Office summoned the Indian deputy high commissioner to convey concerns over the "technical and air space violations by Indian aircraft" on Dec 12 and 13.

Pakistan handed over a diplomatic note to the Indian envoy saying the incident was not in conformity with the 1991 bilateral agreement on Prevention of Air Space Violations, a statement from the Foreign Office said.

According to a government official, President Zardari during his visit to Afghanistan Friday is likely to take up the issue of Indian consulate offices with President Hamid Karzai. "The president will discuss this issue with Mr Karzai and would request for closing down certain Indian consulate offices in areas bordering Afghanistan," said the official.

Meanwhile, Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed has said that the Pakistani government has failed to give "appropriate" response to India's allegation against Pakistan.

"India has established several consulate offices in Afghanistan areas bordering Pakistan and we understand that through these offices they are creating problems in our country," Ahmed told reporters.

Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar has said the government can keep the arrested leaders of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa in custody for 90 days without any reason and may extend their detention period further.

Meanwhile, Zardari has said that he had asked India to co-operate in the investigation into the Mumbai terror attacks and he would not leap to judgments while the investigation was continuing.

He said Western intelligence agencies had not offered firm evidence to justify claims that the attacks were orchestrated from Pakistani soil.

Zardari said claims that the sole surviving attacker had been identified by his own father as coming from Pakistan had not been proven.

"There was still no conclusive evidence to substantiate the claims that the attacks were orchestrated from Pakistani soil," Zardari said in an interview with BBC.

He said Pakistan was prepared to act if adequate evidence of any Pakistani complicity in the attacks emerged even as the opposition has criticized the government attitude and crackdown against the Jamaat-ud Dawa without any proof.

Zardari said that Hafiz Saeed, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa head, would remain under house arrest, without specifying the duration.

The president said: "Let me assure you that if there is any investigation to be found pointing towards his involvement in any form of terrorism, he shall be tried for that reason."

The Pakistan government early this month banned the Jamaat, a charity front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which India has blamed for the Mumbai attacks in which over 170 people were killed. The crackdown on the Jamaat follows the United Nations listing it as a terror outfit.

Concern over military inventory

SUJAN DUTTA

New Delhi, Dec. 18: Defence minister A.K. Antony today asked the military to be ready for “challenges”, two days after saying that India was not considering warlike measures against Pakistan.

The announcement of a meeting Antony took with the chiefs of the armed forces and the defence secretary is meant to accompany a policy of coercive diplomacy since the November 26-28 attacks. India also tested its ship-launched 290km-range Brahmos missile today.

But Delhi’s Pakistan policy since the Mumbai attacks has been peppered with blow-hot-blow-cold statements, among the most surprising of which was the defence minister’s remark on Tuesday that India was “not considering military action”.

Serving and retired officers found this uncharacteristic of a defence minister whose job is to assure the country that “the military is always prepared”, as a former army chief put it.

In its statement, the ministry today said: “The position with regard to certain critical equipment and the status of ongoing acquisition was reviewed in detail.”

A senior official said Antony was concerned with the wherewithal of the military. Even a cursory survey of hardware available shows that India’s military is not satisfied with the state of its inventory.

The Indian Navy’s flagship, the aircraft carrier INS Viraat, is in the docks for repairs and will not be available for at least another six months. A large destroyer, the INS Mysore, is patrolling the coast off Somalia.

The Indian Air Force’s frontline MiG-29 and Mirage fighter aircraft are going through upgrades that are tardy and even its programme to acquire Awacs (airborne warning and control system) aircraft from Israel is delayed by a year.

The army has been desperately seeking to modernise its artillery guns for the last seven years and has to rely on vintage World War II-era cannons.

The official pointed out that a proposal to acquire 108 20-tonne and five-tonne fast-attack boats for coastal security had been in the works for six years. It was finally cleared last fortnight 48 hours after the Mumbai attacks. The order has been given to Calcutta-based public sector firm Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers.

Weekly meetings between the defence minister and the service chiefs, with the defence secretary also in attendance, are routine.

But today Antony wanted the meeting to be publicised and asked the ministry to put out a statement that said: “Security along the land and maritime borders, particularly in the light of terror threats, was reviewed.”

By saying on Tuesday that “we are not planning any military action”, Antony immediately assuaged western and Pakistani fears to a large extent. Islamabad immediately welcomed the assurance.

But today’s statement that the minister “emphasised the need for the forces to be fully geared to face any challenge or threat that may arise” stokes the war of words again.

In between the two statements, Islamabad has steadily edged closer to its original position that Pakistan was not involved in sponsoring the Mumbai attacks.

Pakistan also summoned India’s deputy high commissioner in Islamabad today and formally protested against the alleged airspace violation by Indian fighter jets on December 13-14.

Antony has summoned another meeting on Saturday to review coastal security. Last week, he had called one for a threat assessment of aerial attacks after which the IAF moved into an “operational readiness platform”.

Security mania
So-called VIPs are costing the nation a lot

IT is unbelievable but true that 45,846 policemen guard 13,319 VIPs in the country. Only a few states have as many policemen to guard their entire population. A staggering sum of Rs 825 crore is spent annually on these policemen. What’s worse, the number of VIPs being given round-the-clock security has been growing faster than the population growth.

In Punjab, which has a large number of those who think they are VIPs, are receiving high security although militancy ended in the state years ago. A majority of the beneficiaries are politicians who have always been clamouring for more and more security. All this should be seen against the fact that in India, the police-people ratio is one of the lowest. Most police stations are understaffed with civil policing suffering because of lack of manpower.

It is true that some political leaders require security as, otherwise, they may be vulnerable to attacks. However, security has, over the years, become a status symbol so much so that any leader who does not have a battery of security personnel following him wherever he goes does not consider himself to have “arrived”. Even when security is provided, they constantly demand raising the security level from “x” to “y” to “z”, the ultimate symbol of power and authority.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram set a good example by refusing to have his security standards raised when he was shifted from the Finance Ministry. In sharp contrast, leaders like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati have resorted to various ingenious stratagems to have her security status raised to the level of the security meant for the Prime Minister.

Many of those getting security cover do not simply need them. In Punjab beneficiaries of security continue to cause enormous drain on the state’s resources. The state is also notorious for allowing beacon lights on the vehicles used by the VIPs which get precedence over even ambulance vans at signal points.

It is high time the whole issue of security is considered afresh at the state and national levels. The primary responsibility of the police is to provide security to the common man, and not become part of the perceived status symbol of the VIP, who tend to think they are a class apart, ready to thrive at the cost of public exchequer.

Pak lodges formal protest over airspace violations by IAF

PTI | December 18, 2008 | 14:07 IST

Pakistan on Thursday registered a formal protest against alleged violations of its airspace by Indian fighter jets last week, an incident which New Delhi has already denied.

India's Deputy High Commissioner Manpreet Vohra was handed over a note regarding the alleged airspace violations by Pakistan's Additional Secretary (South Asia) Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry during a meeting at the Foreign Office on Friday morning, diplomatic sources said.

The note conveyed Pakistan's concerns about the incident and sought an explanation from India, they said.

The sources denied that Pakistan had issued a demarche in connection with two alleged airspace violations that occurred on December 13.

Pakistan has claimed that two Indian jets entered its airspace in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Lahore sectors. Indian Air Force's spokesman Wing Commander Mahesh Upasani denied that any of its combat jets had intruded into Pakistani airspace.

Speaking a day later, President Asif Ali Zardari had sought to play down the incident by describing them as a 'technical incursion'. Zardari said such incidents occurred when fighter jets made turns while flying at heights of up to 50,000 feet.

The Pakistan Air Force spokesman had said Indian authorities had been contacted about the incident and he too described it as a 'technical incursion of a minor nature made by mistake'.

The war of words between India and Pakistan on the issue comes as their armed forces have girded up to a state of vigil along the borders with tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad mounting over the terror attacks in Mumbai, which has been blamed on Pakistan-based elements.

Top US general in Iraq gives first view of pullout

By ANNE GEARAN – 5 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top U.S. general in Iraq has outlined for Pentagon leaders a withdrawal plan that would pull thousands more troops out of Iraq early next year, but move more cautiously than the 16-month timetable pledged by President-elect Barack Obama.

Military officials said Thursday that Gen. Raymond Odierno envisions a gradual drawdown of the nearly 150,000 U.S. forces in Iraq to meet a deadline of full withdrawal of fighting forces before 2012.

That timetable is in synch with the three-year deadline set in a new security agreement signed with Baghdad. And it has the full support of Gen. David Petraeus, who has overall responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Ultimately, this will be up to the president-elect, to the new commander in chief, to determine the direction he wishes to go in Iraq and what the force requirements will be to get there," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Morrell said there have been no final decisions by Defense Secretary Robert Gates or the White House.

Odierno and his boss Petraeus described their proposal to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and the civilian heads of the armed services late last week, senior military officials said. Some officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Odierno's recommendations have not been made public.

Military officials described the recommendations as Odierno's exit strategy for Iraq stretching out through 2011, designed to meet the requirements of the security agreement, not Obama's campaign pledge to get combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months.

The security agreement calls for all forces to pull out, but both U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they expect relatively small numbers of noncombat forces to remain. Gates repeated that prediction in a television interview Wednesday.

"My guess is that you are looking at perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops," left behind after fighting forces depart, Gates said on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show." Those forces would serve "in a very different role than we have played in the last five years."

Gates discussed troop numbers and withdrawal options during a wide-ranging conversation with Odierno when the two met during Gates' surprise trip to Iraq last week, Morrell said.

Gates and Mullen met with Obama and aides in Chicago on Monday. Gates will continue in his job under Obama, and Mullen has said he also expects to stay on.

An Obama transition official said the session covered topics from the Mideast to India, and lasted more than five hours.

"Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates briefly discussed current plans developed under President Bush," to meet terms of the Iraq security agreement, the official said. The discussion didn't go much farther, because "there's one commander in chief at a time and everyone around that table respects that."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to outline the confidential talks.

No officials would provide specifics of Odierno's recommendations, such as how many forces would be out by the end of next year.

The range of options would include a reduction in the more than 20,000 Marines currently serving in the western Anbar province — a region that has seen a dramatic decline in violence.

Marine leaders have been repeatedly pressing to get out of Iraq and into Afghanistan — a plan that Gates has indicated greater interest in lately than he had when the plan was presented months ago.

Petraeus told his troops this month that despite progress on both fronts, the U.S. and its allies face a tough fight in the year ahead.

Petraeus wrote in a letter to all troops in U.S. Central Command — stretching across the Middle East and throughout Central Asia — that improved security conditions in Iraq remain fragile and that while the Afghan army is improving, "the difficulties in Afghanistan are considerable."

It was the first time since Petraeus took charge of Central Command, following almost two years as the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, that he has offered troops what he called "my initial assessment of the situation." It covered not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and other parts of the region.

The letter, dated Dec. 9, was released by his office at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Petraeus has assembled a team of experts to conduct an in-depth and comprehensive review of his command area; it is expected to be completed by early February.

_ Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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