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Gates: Cutting Defense Means More ‘Risk,’ Fewer Missions

May 25, 2011


Robert Gates’ final defense policy speech in Washington turned out to be a challenge to his boss. President Obama has a goal of cutting $400 billion out of the Pentagon budget over the next 12 years. To do that, Gates says, the armed forces are going to have to stop taking on certain roles — and the country is going to have to accept the “additional risk” that comes from a pared-back military.

You see, Gates already killed the Army’s gazillion-dollar Future Combat Systems and the Marines’ “swimming tank” troop transporter. He stopped the production lines for the F-22 Raptor stealth jets. Then he and the services wrang out another $78 billion over four years for future spending.

The result? All the “low hanging fruit” in the defense budget have “not only been plucked, they have been stomped on and crushed,” Gates told a supportive audience at the premiere neocon think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, on Tuesday. There’s still a ton of administrative overhead, ballooning retirement costs and massive healthcare expenses. But Gates warned that the gear that remains is ”absolutely critical” for national security. (Which is a stretch for a $530 billion base budget: Congress can’t even quit a second engine for the F-35 that no one seems to want but its maker, General Electric.)

So now it’s up to a Pentagon review — the final one that Gates will order as defense secretary — to lay out for the White House the “additional risk” to national security that additional cuts will create. It’s not that the proposed cuts are so ginormous: they’re only 5 percent of the budget, or “slightly less than keeping pace with inflation,” Gates said. But they force choices about what the U.S. shouldn’t be doing abroad.

Current U.S. strategy requires being prepared to fight two simultaneous wars — as, indeed, the U.S. is doing right now. Maybe that needs to change, Gates mused. (He pronounced himself officially agnostic on the question.) Other things the U.S. may not prioritize as highly — say, humanitarian intervention — ought to be on the chopping block. Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, is going to have a fun, fun time at the Pentagon.

Gates just hates the idea of cutting defense across the board — “math, not strategy,” he’s called it. The specter of the “hollow military” of the 1970s is never far from his mind, and he invoked it in his Tuesday speech. That might also be a stretch, given how much cash poured into the military since 2001, but he wants Obama to guard against a post-war hollowing by picking a grand strategy and equipping the military to support it.

That means taking a look at “fighting formations such as Army brigades, Marine expeditionary units, Air Force wings, Navy ships and supporting aviation assets,” he said. And it’s got to be guided by a recognition that a “smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”

This has made Gates a rock star in conservative circles once again. In January, AEI’s Tom Donnelly lamented that the House GOP was going to roll over for Gates’ effort to trim budgetary fat. But this speech, presaged by a weekend address on the need for military power and an aggro foreign policy, makes Gates look like the Cold Warrior he was in the Reagan era. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post applauded Gates “war against defense cuts.” Added Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, “I hope that Republican presidential candidates are listening.”

The hope on the right is that Gates’ words will hamstring Obama on the defense budget, or make him look weak before the 2012 election. Maybe they will. But they’re also commensurate with trimming back U.S. commitments — which is why they’re so similar to what the dovish budget cutters at the Project on Defense Alternatives urge. Gates wants a more aggressive foreign policy than they do, to be sure, but he’s just turned the defense debate around the question of how to do less.

That’s a challenge for Obama as much as it is the Republicans. Far from scaling down U.S. military commitments, Obama escalated the Afghanistan war and launched a whole new one in Libya, both with substantial GOP support. Gates eventually (and unenthusiastically) went along with the Afghanistan surge and thought the Libya war a mistake. No wonder he’d call for cutting back on marginal missions.

If his speech ultimately causes heartburn for those in either party — in the White House or in Congress — who’d use the military profligately, that’s probably what Gates intended. Plus, it’s not like he’ll be in Washington any more to clean up their mess.

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