By Benjamin Domenech
Slate's Fred Kaplan is not particularly impressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' approach to budgetary decision making, pronouncing it "crafty but inadequate. ... Much of what he wants to do seems the sort of thing somebody should have done years ago," Kaplan writes, and on that point, he's right - yet minimizing the importance of what Gates is doing here seems foolish upon closer inspection.
Gates isn't just providing a model for how you can achieve responsible Pentagon cutbacks - he's doing so in a time of war; a profoundly difficult political reality for any Secretary of Defense to confront. The truth is that there isn't anyone else who could be in Gates' role who would even attempt this kind of reform.
As Kaplan concedes, there is "an interlocking web of officers, bureaucrats, corporations and legislators, all of whom have an interest in their survival." This is hardly unique to the Pentagon - in fact, survival is the primary motivation of any bureaucrat. But it is made all the more challenging within the defense policy sphere, where Gates is essentially announcing he's stealing cookies from powerful general officers and members of Congress - and they all have a sweet tooth.
Consider for a moment how unprecedented this is within Washington: a secretary of a department telling his underlings to expect modest growth at best, and putting the pressure on the services to make cuts in order to keep their babies. While Kaplan mocks the idea slightly, this is the real innovation within Gates' approach - the reason many of these bloated programs get kept at all is that the individual services simply want to defend their territory, and keep the money they now view as their rightful possession.
Gates is essentially giving the services a chance to cut fat out of the system without risking their overall budget numbers - he's manipulating the love for the pet programs in the military culture, and using it to force cuts in bureaucracy. This is an ingenious bit of Winston Wolfe problem solving, the sort for which Gates is already well known.
Of course, Kaplan is right to say more cuts need to be made within the acquisition world - but the argument that the services need to look at how many ships, planes and tanks they really need is something Gates has stressed repeatedly. How can Kaplan possibly complain about insufficient dedication to acquisition cuts from a defense secretary who was willing to speak so bluntly just months ago on the need for such overhauls?
We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again - especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?
Second: aircraft carriers. Our current plan is to have 11 carrier strike groups through 2040, and it's in the budget. And to be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.
"Do we really need this many [blank]?" isn't something you should expect any cabinet secretary to say more than once in your lifetime, especially when the blank in this scenario is "aircraft carriers." Gates' remarks didn't go over well with the Navy, of course - and remarks aren't a substitute action, despite what the White House seems to believe in so many other areas of foreign policy.
But you have to start somewhere, and while a broad overhaul of the acquisition program is a needed reform, cutting the fat at the top is the quickest, most efficient and most politically feasible way to get back 2 percent of your budget. Closing JFCOM is going to raise the most hackles, but it's become an elephant's graveyard for four stars. And minimizing what Gates is doing in areas like this is foolish, ignoring his tendency to anticipate and make internal cuts before the pressure is on from the White House or Congress, when he can set priorities as opposed to react to the priorities of others.
In the context of the news this week - surprising to few who know him well - of his intention to retire in 2011, it's clear that reforming the defense budget is what Gates sees as his legacy. His activity on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are important, and while he would never downplay those efforts, it's fairly obvious Gates views these wars as being won by the generals and troops he supports. What's more, he's smart enough to recognize the unique opportunity he has to make these budgetary changes while maintaining the current defense level and supporting two wars. These cutbacks don't just respond to the current desire to give in to American voters' demands for smaller government, but are a significant first step toward increased efficiency.
This is a political opportunity that may not present itself again, and Gates is taking it. Kaplan may think his approach is inadequate, but unlike more sweeping, blunt reforms, Gates' strategy has the advantage of being workable and achievable in the real world. As author John Nagl told Politico last week: "No one has gotten rich betting against Bob Gates. This is not a man to be trifled with."
Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compassy.