As lawmakers consider how to shore up the nation's defenses while balancing the books, the nation's massive investments in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities may get a boost by their success.

Like the use of Predators to help uncover explosive-making networks in Iraq, the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, notched another big win for ISR equipment, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates has championed.

“Most people conceptualize the ‘operation' as the 40-min. raid. But actually the operation also included the painstaking months of information gathering and analysis that got us to that point. You don't put lead on target without first connecting the dots,” says Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

The Pentagon is not confirming what type of ISR equipment was used in the May 1 raid or the operation leading up to it, but speculation has centered on Lockheed Martin's RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealthy UAV that gathers intelligence and now has a full-motion video capability, and a low-observable variant of the H-60 Black Hawk.

Lawmakers praised the nation's military and intelligence apparatus from top to bottom including the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Along with that came kudos for the success of ISR equipment that may have provided around-the-clock images of the compound.

“It really achieves enormous national security gains at a very efficient price,” says Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “It's kind of meant for these times.”

Gates is leaving the Pentagon in July, and CIA director Leon Panetta, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, has been nominated to replace him with the presidential directive to cut $400 billion from defense over the next 12 years. With ISR equipment scoring yet another big win, budget cutters may look toward conventional hardware to pay the bills.

From the perspective of the leaders of the armed services committees, the raid in Pakistan did little to change their outlook.

“My position is we need to find savings in the defense budget,” says Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). “The need was there before. The need is still there after.”

And Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is still planning to fight any cuts to military spending.

“I'm just trying to hold our levels,” he says. “When you're fighting two wars and involved in a third, I'm not sure that's the best time to be cutting defense.”

The next question is: Exactly how will the defense budget be reshaped as it is pared down? Some are already predicting that intelligence equipment will be shielded from cuts at the cost of legacy equipment across the force.

In a note to investors, Capital Alpha Partners analyst Byron Callan says the success of ISR could reinforce support for intelligence gear. But “it could also accelerate a sharper look at U.S. ground forces, placing more emphasis on special forces and less on conventional armor and mechanized forces.”

That take seemed to resonate among lawmakers of both parties, who describe potential cuts to legacy systems.

Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger—the Democrat who represents a district in Maryland that is home to the National Security Agency's Fort Meade—serves on both the armed services and intelligence committees. He plans to guard U.S. intelligence and space efforts.

The hunt for bin Laden, he said, was a team effort, drawing on technology, human intel and imagery from the NGA. “It all came together,” he says. But going forward, the defense establishment will have to continue funding those efforts and scale back in other areas. “We can't keep focusing on programs that are antiquated.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a former Marine who served in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, is girding for just such a fight, fearing that lawmakers hungry to rein in spending will target bread-and-butter platforms.

The buildup of ISR gear that helped enable the U.S. to kill bin Laden is not a worry for him, because those programs are likely to receive full funding, he says.

“The push to cut is going to be the push to cut our conventional forces,” Hunter says, adding that Panetta, coming to the Defense Department from the CIA, may not be familiar with the tanks, ships and rifles used by “grunts” on the ground.

“That's where we've got to watch out—people saying we don't need our conventional forces now, we can do it all with intel,” Hunter says.

The process of reducing the size of the military may unfold over several years, defense insiders say, after the nation draws down its forces in Afghanistan. For starters, as war funding is rolled into the larger base budget, the Pentagon will be forced to make choices about the kinds of programs it wants to sustain. For example, will there continue to be a need for Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicles?

Already, the Pentagon predicts it will reduce Army force structure once troops begin to come home from the war. One of the easiest places to cut would be to eliminate heavy brigade combat teams that use costly Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

That's not happening this year, however. On May 11, the House Armed Services Committee will mark up its version of the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2012, which adds $400 million to modernize Abrams tanks made by General Dynamics and BAE Systems' Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The Senate panel expects to follow with its version some time in June.