By Lt. Gen. Robert Gard and Laicie Olson
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. – President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Invoking the memory of President Eisenhower’s farewell address last weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a fiery speech aimed at overhauling the Pentagon’s budget and restructuring its bureaucracy.
This rhetoric is anything but new, and builds on previous initiatives set out by the Secretary.
Just last Monday at a Navy League conference, Gates urged the Navy and Marine Corps to think more deeply about the challenges facing their costliest platforms – including aircraft carriers that run $11 billion each, future ballistic missile submarines costing $7 billion apiece and a Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle “suited only to Eisenhower’s D-Day planning.”
While he later joked that he is “not crazy” and wouldn’t just cut out a carrier, the speech ruffled more than a few feathers.
It also pointed to just a few of the many extreme cases in which U.S. defense outweighs that of other countries (h/t to Chris Hellman):
The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to our allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet – a proxy for overall fleet capabilities – exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
“It is not a great mystery what needs to change,” Gates said. “What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.”
Gates is seeking $10 to $15 billion in savings from the $547-billion Pentagon base budget, a number that has risen to astronomical heights:
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade… Military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.
This cut will not, however – as one might expect – contribute to an overall lowering of the Pentagon’s budget. Instead, resources will be redirected, as they usually are, to fund more essential and more relevant capabilities – “tail to tooth,” as they say.
Unfortunately, Congress is unlikely to be helpful. It sees the Defense budget as a jobs bill; continually appropriating funds for such programs as yet more unneeded C-17 aircraft and an unwanted second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. It also loads the budget with billions to reward contributors and fund pet projects.
In future Pentagon budgets, Gates hopes to cut overhead costs and transfer the savings to force structure and modernization within the programmed budget.
“What I’m asking for is not a simple budget cut; I’m talking about changing the way we do business. It’s taking the savings from that and applying it to long-term investments,” he said. “This is a lot harder than cutting the budget for one year.”
This may not be the revolution some had hoped for, but it may be a start.
Gates did not attack the Pentagon’s misguided procurement requests or call for a freeze on defense spending, but he did call for setting real priorities, and he even specified a few.
Lamenting that the gap between him and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers, Gates noted that “A request for a dog-handling team in Afghanistan – or for any other unit – has to go through no fewer than five four-star headquarters in order to be processed, validated, and eventually dealt with.”
Therefore, as the Defense Department begins the process of preparing next’s years Fiscal Year 2012 budget request, I am directing the military services, the joint staff, the major functional and regional commands, and the civilian side of the Pentagon to take a hard, unsparing look at how they operate – in substance and style alike.
According to rumors, Gates may be building a second portfolio of cuts similar in scope to those he made on April 6, 2009.
“When it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower, real choices were made, priorities set and limits enforced.” If Gates meant what he said on Saturday, the cuts will be substantial.