Trimming the Pentagon's Sails
Secretary Robert Gates' dramatic (but limited) plan to cut defense spending.
Not all of Gates' cuts came from efficiencies. He also announced today that he was canceling the Marines' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, an 80,000-pound floating tank that has cost $3 billion to develop, will take another $12 billion to build in serious numbers, yet, even if the thing were made to work (and it's flunked the technical tests so far), would be able to carry only a small number of Marines from ship to shore, at which point they'd be even more vulnerable to missile fire than they would be in the vehicles they already have.
He's also canceling the Marines' share of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (The F-35s going to the Air Force and Navy are experiencing production delays, which will also save some money.) Finally, beginning in 2015, the Army will be cut back by 27,000 troops and the Marines by somewhere between 7,000 and 20,000.
This last item will spark controversy. But Gates noted that fewer troops will be needed as they're withdrawn from Afghanistan in the middle of this decade and that, even with the personnel cuts, both services will be considerably larger than they were four years ago, when he became defense secretary under then-President George W. Bush.
Still, the defense budget will shrink more—or, rather, grow less steeply—than Gates had previously forecast. Last summer, when he first announced his efficiencies initiative, he assumed that the defense budget overall would continue to go up by 1 percent or 2 percent a year beyond the growth caused by inflation. His present plan foresees that in 2015 and 2016, there will be "zero real growth"—i.e., no growth beyond inflation.
He and Mullen both warned that the budget cannot be cut much more without jeopardizing the United States' ability to carry out all its global missions. But in making that claim, they may have only previewed the terms of the next great debate (if there is one) on defense spending.
It is reasonable to ask: If the Pentagon's managers can dredge up $100 billion in savings without touching more than a couple of weapons systems, who's to say how much might be found by probing into the rationales for several more weapons systems?
Gates' request for FY 2012 will amount to $553 billion—not including the costs of fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is more than the amount spent on defense by all the rest of the world's countries combined. Adjusting for the effects of inflation, it is also more than the United States spent on defense at the height of the Cold War, the height of the Vietnam War—more than it's spent in any year since World War II.
Is this really necessary? Does the Navy really need 10 aircraft carriers and all their escorting destroyers, cruisers, and submarines? How many fighter wings does the Air Force really need? How many brigades does the Army really need?
Gates may well have whittled down the defense budget to the point where any more whittling must hinge on a careful inquiry into those questions. Will Congress do that? Or will they do what Gates and Mullen fear, and just slash away mindlessly?
At his press conference today, Gates dismissed one private study that called for deeper cuts in defense spending. "That's math, not strategy," he said.
The same could be said, to some degree, of any year's defense budget, including, I suspect, this one. Every year since the mid-1960s, the budget has broken down—plus or minus a couple of percentage points—to one-third for the Army, one-third for the Air Force, and one-third for the Navy.
That too is mere math, and very political math at that.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Robert Gates by Win McNamee/Getty Images.