Gates: Hollow Force Not Returning on My Watch

by Mackenzie Eaglen

He may have only 44 days left in office, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates today made it clear he’s still in charge. In urgent language, he discussed the Pentagon’s approach to tackling President Obama’s order to find roughly $400 billion to cut from the defense budget.

Most, if not all, of this money will come from the military budget, Gates affirmed, not from other federal agencies with security responsibilities. And across-the-board-cuts are not an option: far too risky, Gates said, not to mention a complete abdication of strategic planning, responsibility for setting priorities, and consequences if elected officials get it wrong.

The secretary said the review will focus on strategy and risk and not simply serve as an accounting exercise. The Pentagon will take guidance from various strategy documents, including the president’s national security strategy, and various defense strategies. One critical strategy he forgot to mention is Congress’ blue-ribbon Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel.

Let’s hope that was just a “senior moment” since this group came to a stark conclusion that a “train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.” And it is “unlikely that the United States can make do with less than it needed in the early 1990s, when Americans assumed the world would be much more peaceful post Cold War.”

Everyone wants to cut the defense budget until they need it. Unfortunately, Washington is forgetting that military strength is much more expensive to restore than it is to keep.

Strategic planning is essential to the nation’s defense. In fact, it’s what should be driving the defense budget. “In the absence of strategic clarity, foreign policy becomes a series of impulses, expressed through often contradictory decisions, in reaction to events that no one managed until they grew into crises that were not anticipated,” observes Jim Talent, a former member of both House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

But today, the budgetary dictum to cut $400 billion is wagging the defense-strategy dog. A review of roles and missions will not change U.S. foreign policy, only the president can do that.

Secretary Gates is trying to shift the burden of proof where it belongs, but it may be too late. He is attempting to get the policymakers — specifically the president and Congress–to explain how they can expect the U.S. military to serve all vital national interests currently identified with a smaller force, shrinking budget, different (paper) strategy, and within acceptable margins of risk.

Ultimately, the president and Congress will have to accept responsibility for the risks they will impose and possible consequences that may occur for those in uniform once these difficult decisions are presented.

The question is whether this approach will go flying out the window once Secretary Gates’s successor assumes office in just over a month from now.

— Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.