Robert Gates begs Americans to have an honest debate about defense spending.

Military analysis.
May 24 2011 7:03 PM

Exit Gates With a Warning

Robert Gates begs Americans to have an honest debate about defense spending.

(Continued from Page 1)

The question is whether Congress will just slash money arbitrarily, the salami-slicing that Gates fears, or whether it—and the team that Gates' presumptive successor, Leon Panetta, puts together—will restore the art of military-budget analysis.

Gates did a fair bit of this in his time. He halted the F-22 not just because it was an expensive Cold War relic but because his analysts noticed that the Air Force's justification for continuing to build more planes was deeply flawed.

Advertisement

At the time, the Air Force already had 183 of these planes. Its senior officers wanted to build a total of 387. Yet their case for this expansion, laid out in internal briefing books, assumed that the United States would someday fight two wars simultaneously against two foes with just as much air power as we have. It also assumed that a large percentage of the F-22s would be in routine maintenance depots when the wars started—i.e., that the two foes would coordinate a surprise attack.

The unstated implication was that if the attacks did not come as a surprise, and if we therefore had more of the F-22s online and ready to go, we wouldn't need quite so many planes to begin with. And if we were willing to let go of the premise that two comparably powerful nations (a resurgent Russia and a much more powerful China?) would go to war against us simultaneously, the 183 F-22s that we already had—in addition to the many other planes in the arsenal—would be plenty.

And so Gates stopped the project. Obama agreed, to the point where he announced he would veto the entire defense bill if it contained money for a single additional F-22. And Congress went along (with 15 Republican senators joining in), despite the fact that the Air Force had over the years ingeniously parceled out contracts and subcontracts to corporations in 44 states.

Many other weapons systems and military missions could be subjected to the same sort of analysis. For instance, the defense budget that Obama and Gates put forth in February includes $24.6 billion for 11 new ships, $4 billion for two new Virginia-class submarines, and $1 billion for a down payment on a new nuclear aircraft carrier. Are all these things really needed? What are the assumptions and scenarios that support the case? How valid are they? Do we need to spend $9.4 billion to buy 32 F-35 stealth fighter planes, when we're also spending $2 billion to upgrade the older (but still world-class) F-15s? And what about the $1.4 billion for 24 new Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles? Is our nuclear deterrent degraded without them?

These are the questions that Gates is saying we need to ask, even if he might disagree with the answers.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.