Nothing Stimulating about Defense?
On the cutting room floor.


Jim Talent

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced he would ask Congress to cut a number of defense procurement and modernization programs. No surprise there. President Obama is a man of the Left, and ever since Vietnam, the Left has downplayed the importance and distrusted the use of American military power. The Obama administration has been pushing the Joint Chiefs of Staff to cut defense spending since its first week in office.

Normally, it would be unusual for the secretary of defense to announce program cuts before sending the Department of Defense budget to the White House. But in this case, that was no surprise either. Earlier this month, reported that Secretary Gates would be making such an announcement to give the administration political distance from responsibility for weakening American security.

What was surprising was Gates’s incoherence on a tactical level and his failure even to acknowledge the growing funding crisis his department is facing. It is hard to see what strategic or tactical military ends his recommended cuts are designed to achieve; it is by no means certain that his decisions, even if Congress endorses them, will end up saving money; and in any event, the secretary simply ignored the elephant in the room: the fact that without a large and immediate increase in procurement funding, the Department of Defense cannot buy the new generation of ships, planes, and tracked vehicles that are necessary to meet the threats America is confronting.

First, there is no logic to many of the program cuts the secretary is recommending. For example, he wants to end placement of ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska, at the same time he admits that the North Koreans are aggressively developing longer-range ballistic missiles that will be able to strike the United States. The ground-based interceptors in Alaska are the one part of the U.S. missile-defense system that virtually everyone agrees would be effective, and they are designed to defend against the one threat everyone agrees is growing. Secretary Gates also wants to end procurement of the stealthy F-22 fighter and instead buy more F-35 strike fighters. But the F-22 is designed to ensure air superiority against the growing number of sophisticated Russian-built MiG and Sukhoi aircraft, and against China’s advanced fighters. Strike and air-superiority fighters have different capabilities because they are designed for different missions. Buying a strike fighter in lieu of an air-superiority fighter is like buying artillery when the military needs tanks.

The secretary also wants to stop procuring the C-17 “Globemaster” — the Air Force’s most modern cargo aircraft. That makes no sense at all. As the United States gradually increases the size of the Army and Marine Corps while continuing to reduce forward basing of their troops, it becomes even more necessary to ensure adequate and reliable lift capability, so that the Pentagon can quickly move forces and equipment to where they are needed. Since the attacks of 9/11, the Pentagon has been flying the wings off our C-17 fleet; in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the C-17 is an effective means for moving troops and equipment, not just between theaters, but within theaters as well, without having to worry about improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, or the threat of increasingly effective insurgent attacks along the main supply routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Moreover, the secretary has made these program decisions before the department he leads has conducted a thorough review of its short- and long-term needs. Mr. Gates said that the decisions were the result of a “holistic assessment of capabilities, requirements, risks, and needs for the purpose of shifting this department in a different strategic direction.” But he admitted that the Pentagon has yet to conduct the Quadrennial Defense Review.

How, for example, does the secretary know that his department will need only 205 C-17 aircraft or that it can sustain an adequate American presence around the world with only ten aircraft carriers? And why should Congress — or the country — accept, without any thorough strategic analysis, his recommendations to terminate programs that his department and his military leaders have been advocating as necessary, not only for the last two years, when the Pentagon has been under his leadership, but for years before his appointment?

The secretary also made a point of saying that he wanted procurement reform. Fair enough. But the last three secretaries have said the same thing. The current procurement system, which Mr. Gates appropriately says is broken, is itself the result of 15 years of reform, going back to Secretary William Perry. Perhaps Secretary Gates will succeed where the last two administrations have failed. The one thing we do know is that abrupt shifts in direction — advocating programs one year and then canceling them the next; promising modernization and then cutting modernization budgets — create inconsistency and instability and make it impossible to use defense dollars efficiently.