The bizarre budget showdown between Defense Secretary Gates and Congress.

The bizarre budget showdown between Defense Secretary Gates and Congress.

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.


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."

The other contentious debate was over the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter plane, which, to Gates and President Obama, is a textbook case of a Cold War weapon that has no place in the 21st-century arsenal. It is telling that not a single F-22 has flown a combat mission in any of the wars the United States has fought since the plane entered the fleet. It might be useful in some future war, but Gates and others have calculated 187 would be enough—especially since the smaller, cheaper F-35 stealth plane is about to enter production, and Gates has in fact boosted its budget.


Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., went to bat for the F-22. The plane might not be needed now or against such foes as Iraqi and Afghan insurgents. But Russia and China are developing advanced fighter planes and surface-to-air missiles. U.S. Air Force generals have determined that there is a "requirement" for 243 F-22s to maintain air superiority in the coming decades. They could get by with 187 planes, but only at "high risk."

Gates responded that these calculations might be true if the Air Force had nothing but F-22s, but it will also have F-35s and probably still some F-15s. The Navy will also have F-35s and F-18E/Fs, and both services will have a large number of unmanned aerial vehicles—like the Predator drones, which have proved very effective. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified alongside Gates, went further: The F-35, he said, might well be the last manned fighter plane. "We're in a time of transition in the future of aviation," Mullen said. Just because the Air Force (or any other single service) says it has a "requirement" does not mean that the overall Defense Department has the same requirement.

The "requirements" game is an old one. When James Schlesinger was defense secretary in the mid-1970s, he ordered the chief of naval operations to calculate how many aircraft carriers the Navy would need if it abandoned the mission of defending the Indian Ocean. At the time, the Navy had 13 carriers, two of which were assigned to the Indian Ocean. The chief put his staff to work. The answer they came up with: 13 carriers.

The point was clear. The Navy's fleet was, and is, built around aircraft carriers. If you cut the carriers, you also had to cut a proportionate number of destroyers, frigates, cruisers, the whole works. So no matter how drastically the secretary of defense might alter the Navy's mission, they would come up with some way to justify a "requirement" of 13 carriers.

The same is true today of the Air Force—which is dominated by fighter pilots—and its generals' desire for 243 F-22s. Any fewer F-22s than that, and there's a danger that the centerpiece of the Air Force's mission—the rationale for the size of its fleet—might shift to something other than fighter planes. (Adm. Mullen's remark—that in the near future there might be no more manned aircraft—only accentuates their worry.)

In the coming weeks, the debate over the defense budget is bound to intensify. Passions will flare. The fight may seem surreal, but that's because it is unusually primordial; it's stripped down to basic institutional interests. The battle, waged behind the scenes in the Pentagon, is fiercer still in Congress, because there, it's conjoined with the struggle for contracts and jobs. (It is no coincidence that pieces of the F-22 are manufactured in 46 states; for more than a half-century, the services have been subcontracting out their most cherished weapons to as many congressional districts as possible in order to maximize political support.)

This is why the budget debate will be worth watching. Gates' proposals aren't particularly radical by most objective measures, but they're deeply threatening to the inside players. He's trying to change the culture in the Pentagon, and that's like shifting the building's foundations. It's going to be a great fight.