The bizarre budget showdown between Defense Secretary Gates and Congress.

Military analysis.
May 14 2009 6:30 PM

Gates vs. Congress

Why do senators want to bust the budget for missile defense that doesn't work and a fighter plane we don't need?

Watching Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrangle about the Pentagon budget with the House and Senate armed services committees this week was a surreal experience. I've been covering these sorts of hearings for 30 years, off and on, but never have the witness and his interrogators—or at least some of them—seemed so jarringly out of whack.

Gates was presenting what he called a "reform budget," reflecting the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, emphasizing the needs of today over the dubious musings of what might be needed 20 years from now, and recognizing that money is far from limitless.

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The legislators, especially some Republicans (and Joe Lieberman), were wringing their hands as if Gates' budget—more than a half-trillion dollars, not counting another $130 billion to sustain the two wars we're fighting—amounted to a pittance and as if even slight cuts in marginal weapons systems would plunge America into serious danger.

Take the secretary's exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama. Sessions was worked up over cuts in the missile defense program. Gates was cutting back the number of Alaska-based interceptors from 44 to 30; he was canceling the multiple-kill vehicle and the airborne laser. What, Sessions asked, is going on here?

Gates replied that he's supported missile defense ever since President Reagan started the program back in 1983 but that the Pentagon had to consider practicalities. The Alaska interceptors are good for one thing—shooting down missiles launched from North Korea—and 30 interceptors are more than enough to deal with that (still hypothetical) threat. The multiple-kill vehicle was designed during the Cold War to ward off a huge attack by the Soviet Union. The policy for the past eight years has been to counter small attacks by rogue nations or terrorists, so a weapon designed to shoot down lots of missiles at once isn't needed, even if it were to work (which, though he didn't say so, is extremely unlikely). The airborne laser—a 747 airplane fitted with a laser beam that would destroy enemy missiles as they blasted out of their silos, before they entered outer space—has a basic conceptual problem. First, we would have to buy 28 planes just to keep enough of them in the air at one time. Second, to get within range of the enemy missile bases, they'd have to loiter inside the airspace of, say, Iran and North Korea—and that just isn't going to happen.

Finally, Gates was recommending a mere 10 percent cut in the missile-defense program, from $10 billion to $9 billion. This was hardly a slash job.

Sessions, clearly outgunned, grumbled that he was still "concerned" about "the size" of the cut. (Lieberman and John McCain had expressed the same concern during their question periods.)

Leave aside the issue of whether missile defense makes any sense or has any hope of working. (I have serious doubts and think that, in any case, the program could have been cut by a few billion more with no harm done.) The salient fact is that Gates had scrutinized the program and taken out elements that were plainly unnecessary or absurd. Sessions was looking at the program as an abstraction and its budget-figure as a symbolic show of strength. If this were anything other than the defense budget, Sessions would be derided as a paragon of senseless waste.

As Gates put it, a lot of the cuts he'd imposed were "kind of no-brainers … poster children for an acquisition program gone wrong."

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