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The Gates Budget

It is less risky than the strategy upon which it is based.

By From the June 2009 issue

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Bob Gates has been around Washington for many years, and it showed in the way he unveiled the defense budget. Recognizing that he was about to propose a number of changes that perhaps were not as radical as they first appeared, but nevertheless would upset key service proponents, major contractors, and their congressional supporters, Gates chose to release the budget’s most controversial “headlines” before submitting the details to Capitol Hill. In so doing, he avoided the damage done by leaks that invariably accompany the widespread internal dissemination of detailed budget documents called Program Budget Decisions, or PBDs. Instead of being placed on the defensive by key congressmen worried about their pet defense programs, Gates therefore was able to seize the high ground and focus the debate on his major budgetary themes. Congress has thus far been remarkably passive in the face of his proposals, industry likewise is keeping its own counsel, and service critics have swallowed their bile.

Gates first advertised his inclinations in a major Foreign Affairs article that appeared while he was still George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. He argued that the Cold War rationale underlying the procurement of major weapons systems had been overtaken by events, and that the military should reorient itself—and its programs and budgets—to the demands of fighting “irregular” wars that were likely to confront it for the foreseeable future. Consistent with that view, Gates fired the secretary of the Air Force and the service chief of staff, ostensibly over a nuclear weapons snafu but actually because they resisted the acceleration of programs to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles critical to operations against terrorists and insurgents but which threatened the primacy of piloted aircraft.

On January 27, 2009, Gates expanded upon his views in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has been following up with speeches and testimony ever since. Gates has been accused of applying a scattershot approach to defense cuts without having an overarching strategy. He is also accused of pursuing a “divide and conquer” strategy to silence contractors; they lose work in one program but gain in another, or work is lost in one part of the country but gained in another.

Actually, Gates does have a coherent strategy; whether it is the correct strategy is something reasonable people can and should debate. Similarly, Gates’s approach to weapons systems is far from scattershot; in fact, many of the proposals he is putting forward are no different from those that Don Rumsfeld contemplated early in the Bush administration. The events of 9/11 diverted Rumsfeld from focusing on weapons programs; in his first two years as secretary of defense, Gates likewise left the management of the defense program and budget to his able deputy, Gordon England.

FIRST, HOWEVER, TO THE STRATEGY. It is Gates’s view that the United States will engage in irregular forms of warfare for the foreseeable future. No serious conventional military competitor has emerged on the international scene, and that includes China. Whether in terms of defense spending or in terms of conventional military capability, Gates rightly asserts, the United States military is far and away the most powerful force on the face of the earth.

Where the military is indeed challenged, however, is in the realm of irregular warfare. As the conflict in Iraq has made clear, insurgents can employ readily available, indeed store-bought, technologies to inflict tremendous damage on American forces. The very name “improvised explosive devices” (universally called IEDs) testifies to the tight decision loops in which terrorists and insurgents operate. As the great military thinker John Boyd tirelessly pointed out throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the key to defeating an enemy is to get “inside” his decision loop; for at least several years, insurgents in Iraq did exactly that to the United States military.

Gates therefore argues, with some justice, that the United States must find ways to fund, develop, and acquire systems that will enable it to confound its irregular opponents and work inside their decision loop. To that end, he not only seeks to reform DoD’s weapons acquisition program, but also wishes to reinvent the entire weapons acquisition system, so that devices that can defeat insurgents can be fielded with sufficient speed to confound their operations. And Gates points to the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle as an example of both aspects of the changes he seeks: a weapons system that indeed confounded the enemy by employing a design that defeated IEDs, and one that was acquired with unusual speed because it was fielded outside the normal, bureaucratically stolid, ossified weapons acquisition system.

Gates rightly asserts that the military focused far too heavily on another major conventional conflict at the expense of recognizing, and planning against, the threat that insurgents posed for the United States and its allies. Don Rumsfeld had the same view; he too argued that there was a need to balance the prevailing emphasis on conventional operations with a response to the challenge of irregular warfare. But Gates may be swinging the strategic pendulum too far in the direction of the latter. In so doing, he may be repeating the mistake that America’s military has made for generations: planning the next war on the basis of the last one, or, in this case, the current one.

The fact that no “peer competitor” is discernible today does not mean that there will be none two decades hence, when the production lines of weapons approved and developed today would still be operating at full tilt. In the first place, we tend to assume that if a country is quiescent today it will always remain quiescent; that is what we assumed about Iraq on July 31, 1990. That is what appears to be our current assumption about North Korea, despite its missile tests. Saddam Hussein proved us wrong; can we assert with certainty that Kim Jong Il, or some successor, will not do the same? Moreover, 20 years or even less may be all that another competitor needs to pose a serious threat to our allies, if not ourselves. Fewer than 20 years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Nazis moved into the Sudetenland. With technology advancing far more rapidly (Moore’s Law neither existed nor could have 70 years ago), the emergence of a peer competitor could take closer to a decade rather than two. Gates is betting that will not happen. How safe is his bet?

IN LIGHT OF HIS STRATEGIC VIEW, the secretary of defense has opted for the F-35, an aircraft designed for air-to-ground operations (and one that actually is a multi-national program), in place of the air superiority F-22 fighter. He has chosen to modify DDG-59 Aegis destroyers for the missile defense mission, instead of procuring far more expensive DDG-1000 destroyers, which were not designed for missile defense. He has canceled the vehicle portion of the Army’s excessively complex Future Combat System but is retaining the unmanned aerial portion of that system. He is delaying the introduction of a new long-range bomber. He proposes to end the production line for the C-17 airlifter. He is canceling procurement of a second aircraft to demonstrate the utility of the Airborne Laser, a key element in missile defense. He has opted for a less complex but less expensive satellite posture. And he has increased the DoD’s emphasis on procurement of unmanned aerial vehicles such as Predator and Reaper.

Gates’s cuts and changes are far from revolutionary, however. Don Rumsfeld contemplated terminating the F-22 production line as early as 2002. Rumsfeld pushed for the expansion of the unmanned aerial vehicle program, notably the Global Hawk as well as the Predator, in the face of entrenched Air Force resistance. He canceled two “Cold War” Army systems, the Crusader and the Comanche helicopter, earning him a reputation as an “anti-Army” secretary. He initiated the Littoral Combat Ship, which is intended to operate in lower-intensity (and irregular) environments and which Gates has retained. Finally, Rumsfeld was deeply concerned about the stagnant acquisition system and indeed about the entire bureaucracy. He supported the notion of progressive or “spiral” development of systems to minimize costly overruns and design flaws.

Under Rumsfeld’s leadership the DoD created the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell (JRAC) in 2004, and the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) in 2006, both of which were intended to “work around” the standard acquisition process and both of which continue to function under his successor. Rumsfeld also introduced the merit-based National Security Personnel System, which promoted howls of outrage from civil service unions and has been the subject of endless lawsuits. And he supported changes to the military retirees health benefits program, which has been consuming ever-larger slices of the defense pie.

Bob Gates has been in office for two and a half years, and he too is responding to the failings of key programs and a still unruly acquisition system. Yet he is not being revolutionary in this regard. He simply is expanding upon the work of his much-too-unfairly vilified predecessor.

GATES WILL FIND, as Rumsfeld did, that proposing solutions does not mean that they will be realized. The services still have their back channels to Congress, as do other interests, be they defense industry officials, veterans’ groups that want no changes to the health program, or civil service unions. And Congress has yet to pronounce on the budget.

The Air Force is seething at the secretary’s attempts to terminate or cut back on their favorite programs, all of them manned. It is unhappy that the secretary does not see the value of more F-22 jets with supercruise capability and instead prefers the air-to-ground F-35. It desperately wants a new bomber. It has difficulty understanding why, as the Army expands by 70,000 troops and is expected to remain heavily engaged in Afghanistan while maintaining a residual posture in Iraq, the additional C-17 aircraft to lift the Army overseas suddenly no longer are required. Regarding the C-17, Air Force officers do seem to have a strong case.

The Army has not reacted as strongly to Gates’s FCS decision, while the Navy is not at all unhappy with the closing of the DDG-1000 line after three ships; Navy leaders sought a similar outcome last year only to be rebuffed by Congress.

Finally, it is arguable that the missile defense program has not suffered nearly as badly as many expected. The Airborne Laser program is not dead; the cancellation of a second aircraft leaves the door open for procurement at a later date. Other missile defense programs are being maintained, and even the so-called Third Site in Europe may yet come to fruition if Washington and Moscow cannot reach an understanding regarding the Iranian threat.

ALL OF THE FOREGOING PRESUPPOSES a compliant Congress. That may or may not be the case. Congress will certainly make some changes to the defense program, and could well keep a system like the C-17 alive, or refuse to adjust health benefits. Other elements of the defense program may also be adjusted or get an additional lease on life.

At bottom, the core issue resides not with the fiscal year 2010 program, but with that of next year, and with the strategy that underpins it. Will the administration really provide for another year of growth in defense spending, as Gates himself appears to have intimated? Will that growth be sufficient both to maintain the health of the current defense program and to cover the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, which, the administration insists, will not be funded by supplemental appropriations?

Perhaps most important of all, will the administration modify and rebalance its current focus on irregular warfare at the expense of conventional needs—resulting, for example, in a new decision to expand the Navy and/or increase the Air Force’s airlift capability? If it does not, the price of the swinging pendulum may not be immediately visible, but if history is any guide, it will definitely be paid, though perhaps after those involved in today’s strategic choices will have all long since retired.  

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About the Author

Dov S. Zakheim was Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), 2001–2004, and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Planning and Resources), 1985–1987.