A Good Start
Robert Gates' crafty but inadequate plan to cut the Pentagon budget.
It's a tough sell, politically. There is a reason no previous defense secretary has made a run against these kinds of entities: They're protected by an interlocking web of officers, bureaucrats, corporations, and legislators, all of whom have an interest in their survival.
Gates is canny to play off one set of interests against another (drop the Joint Forces Command, pick up another ship; give up a dozen generals, win a few more of those armored vehicles you've been eyeing). Maybe it will work. But by notching up his victories in this manner, he forgoes a path that would have yielded much greater savings.
The big money and the real savings lie precisely in the "force structure" and "force modernization" that Gates is aiming—and genuinely wants—to protect. In the question-and-answer period, he said that about half of the weapons-procurement budget goes for modernization—that is, for building new weapons, most of which have little or nothing to do with the wars we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the current budget ($549 billion, not counting the costs of our two wars) contains $137.5 billion for procurement, that amounts to roughly $70 billion.
Gates wants the Pentagon and the military branches to conduct a "clean-sheet review" and to "start setting priorities, making real tradeoffs, and separating appetites from real requirements" when it comes to things like contractors, headquarters, overhead, and so forth. And that's all to the good. But he's not launching any similar campaign when it comes to deployments and weapons systems. (In fairness, last year, he did cut about 20 weapons programs, including the F-22—more than any defense secretary in 40 years. But budget officials estimate that the bag of goodies is still bursting way beyond our ability to pay for them.)
The steps Gates took today have far-reaching implications; I don't mean to minimize them. But there are other issues and questions that tap more deeply into the foundations of what he himself calls our "cumbersome and top-heavy" military, which has "grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost."
For instance: How many submarines and aircraft carriers does the Navy really need? And do all those carriers need the same number of aircraft and escort ships? How many fighter planes does the Air Force really need? How many brigades does the Army really need?
Gates' new reforms are based on two premises: First, that the nation can't afford unceasing growth in the defense budget; second, that the nation can afford moderate growth in the defense budget, as long as the Pentagon shows good faith by slashing what any objective observer would label "waste."
The first premise is unassailable, the second probably too optimistic. The fact is, we can't afford growth in the defense budget, period. To get the cuts he's after, Gates—as a matter of political realism—has to leave the rest of the budget alone. But at some point, some secretary of defense is going to have to open it all up to scrutiny.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Robert Gates by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.