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May 08, 2010

Gates Claims Eisenhower’s Mantle, Challenging Pentagon Overspending

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It’s really hard to figure out just what section of Robert Gates’ speech this afternoon to the Eisenhower library about “political will and the Defense budget” to quote. Gates is taking on a lot of opponents. Legislators who never met a defense platform they wouldn’t throw money at. Pentagon bureaucrats and staff officers who never met a needless regulation they couldn’t cite to interfere with a low-level commander’s common-sense assessment of his/her needs or capabilities. A system that — I loved this line — comes up with something like this: “The one area of real decline in overhead was in the area where we actually needed it: full-time contracting professionals, whose numbers plunged from 26,000 to about 9,000. We ended up with contractors supervising other contractors – with predictable results.”

These may sound like wonky or quotidian budget and organizational concerns. But Gates also addresses a source of what you might call “strategic demand” for this dysfunction: a hysterical tone of security debate in which American military dominance up and down the spectrum is constantly considered in mortal danger by this-or-that decision to cut a needless or unproven weapons system, ship, aircraft or program. Notice that America isn’t necessarily in mortal danger here, just American dominance, a distinction that rarely gets articulated amidst the breathlessness. Gates:

Before making claims of requirements not being met or alleged “gaps” – in ships, tactical fighters, personnel, or anything else – we need to evaluate the criteria upon which requirements are based and the wider real world context. For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?

These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today. And they are the kinds of question that we must all – civilian, military, in government and out – be willing to ask and answer in order to have a balanced military portfolio geared to real world requirements and a defense budget that is fiscally and politically sustainable over time.

“It is not a great mystery what needs to change,” Gates said. “What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.” (Sorry, I’m going off a prepared text emailed to me and don’t have a link for you.) In case it isn’t clear, Gates is arguing that defense budget cuts, management flattening and sharpening of strategic analysis are necessary to put American military superiority on a sustainable footing — not to do away with it.

As it happens, I wonder if Gates is really right that a mammoth, corpulent and astrategic defense budget is politically unsustainable over time. All available evidence demonstrates the opposite: the politically unsustainable budget is the one that constrains pretty much any aspect of the mammoth, corpulent and astrategic spending and prioritization that Gates accurately diagnoses. Legislators do not lose their jobs for acquiescing to Pentagon bloat. They lose their jobs for combatting it — or they fear they would, so they don’t.

That’s why Gates’s speech arguably should have focused more — or, really, at all — on the defense-contractor-funded cottage industry that pumps out think-tank reports and about the inevitability of confrontation with China or a resurgent Russia or name your enemy of the moment; that presumes the military is the only dependable tool of American strategy and that non-military options are either naive paths to failure or pretexts for ultimate aggression; and a media that generally never met a war that it wouldn’t treat as presumptively justified.

I don’t mean to suggest that just because someone doesn’t offer a wholesale critique that his/her critique is necessarily flawed or unfocused or anything else, since having a defense secretary who’s willing to make even half of the critique Gates did make is depressingly rare. But there is a constituency for militarism in this country, a constituency cynically stoked by what others have called a military-industrial-media complex, and it deserves recognition when confronting the dysfunction in the Pentagon and its supposed allies.

Update, 10:42 a.m., May 9: The text of the speech is here.

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