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The Good and Bad of Gates's Agenda

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
April 8, 2009


I haven't commented yet on Bob Gates's new defense agenda because I've been ambivalent about it. I still am, even after having gotten off a conference call between the defense secretary and some writers.

He proposed many initiatives that make sense. These include spending an extra $2 billion on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities including 50 new Predator-class unmanned aerial vehicles; $500 million more for helicopter operations; and $500 million for training and equipping foreign militaries to fight our mutual enemies. Other valuable increases include more Special Operations Forces, more cyberwarfare specialists, and more Littoral Combat Ships that are especially useful for operations such as hunting pirates and terrorists.

I am also amenable to some of the cuts he proposed. I have never been convinced of the need to buy both the F-22 and F-35, so I think Gates made a perfectly defensible decision to stop buying more F-22s while increasing and speeding up the acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I am also concerned that future Navy ships are ruinously expensive and too vulnerable to low-cost missiles, so his decision to delay the Navy's CG-X program to develop the next-generation cruiser makes sense. So too I applaud his decision to end the VH-71 helicopter, designed for use by the president, which had become a gold-plated monstrosity.

Gates described his decision to halt and restructure the Army's Future Combat System as the hardest call he had to make (he said he didn't reach a final decision until this weekend), but I believe it was the right call. The conceit behind the FCS program -- that a single line of lightly armored vehicles could meet all the needs of the army in the future -- was always questionable. The army placed too much faith in perfect "battlespace awareness" without sufficiently incorporating the lessons learned about fighting low-end enemies in places like Iran and Afghanistan.  Now those lessons can be more effectively integrated and different types of vehicles can be designed for different needs in the future.

Those are the positives. But from my perspective there are also some negatives. Gates's decision to spend less on missile defense overall, even while boosting funds by $700 million for theater missile defense, sends the wrong signal, coming as it does only a day after North Korea's missile launch. Lest we forget, Iran is also developing ballistic missiles. Defending against these threats must remain a top priority.

I am also concerned that Gates did not announce any increase in army end-strength. When he served in the George H.W. Bush administration, the active-duty army was more than 700,000 strong. Today it is projected to grow to only 547,000, even though it has far more missions on its hands than it did in the early 1990s. I don't see how Gates can justify not growing our land forces more.

Finally, I am worried that our fleet is getting dangerously small.

It's below 300 ships and we are projected under this plan to have only 10 carrier battle groups in the future. Those numbers seem inadequate to deal with all the threats we face, especially with China pursuing a breakneck military modernization program. It's nice that Gates wants to build three rather than two Littoral Combat Ships next year and to continue production of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, but that alone won't maintain our mastery of the oceans which underwrites American power and global security.

More broadly, I am concerned that this is basically an austerity budget. The budget calls for total spending of $534 billion. Gates said that's a 4% increase over the current year's budget. What he didn't mention is that some of the spending which had previously been covered in supplemental appropriations is now being moved into the core defense budget. According to Rep. John McHugh, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services committee, "If implemented, this proposal will be tantamount to an $8 billion cut in defense spending." In our conference call Gates didn't deny that arithmetic (which had been questioned elsewhere) but he did say that "virtually every decision I announced yesterday I would have made regardless of what our topline was. If our topline had been $581 billion, I would have made the same decisions I made and announced yesterday." General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who was also on the call, jumped in to say, "these are not cuts, this is a reshaping of our basic capability."

It still looks like cuts to me. In a world of limitless spending, I would buy more F-22s and F-35s, more missile defense, more troops, more ships, and I am puzzled why Gates wouldn't want to do that also. Wouldn't any defense secretary want to hedge against a variety of risks? Instead he is taking difficult decisions which, as Kori Schake warns, risk focusing "on counterinsurgency . . . at the expense of other military capabilities. Whether he admits it or not, Gates seems to be operating under an overall imperative in Democratic-controlled Washington to stop growing defense spending-even as the administration and Congress are overseeing out-of-control growth in domestic spending. That leaves me puzzled: If the president is so worried about creating jobs, why is he closing some defense production lines which will throw workers out of a job?

Bob Gates's decisions on individual programs are intelligent and defensible within the parameters he is operating in. But in a world where we are still fighting two wars and face growing threats from the likes of Iran and North Korea, even as our economy cries out for stimulus, there is a good case to be made for considerably more defense spending than this budget envisions. What puzzles me is that Gates isn't making that case, at least not publicly.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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