Gates’s defense deja vu

Why a so-called sweeping overhaul of defense spending is actually just more of the same. By Winslow Wheeler Just as it has consumed the press, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s decisions on hardware will completely preoccupy Congress. A major food fight is sure to break out over the capping of F-22 production at 187 ...

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ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 6: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates holds a news conference at the Pentagon April 6, 2009 in Arlington, Virginia. Gates proposed changes to the defense budget, including the canceling of some projects and the expansion of others, and making significant cuts to big weapons programs. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Why a so-called sweeping overhaul of defense spending is actually just more of the same.

By Winslow Wheeler

Just as it has consumed the press, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s decisions on hardware will completely preoccupy Congress. A major food fight is sure to break out over the capping of F-22 production at 187 very expensive, but not particularly impressive, fighter jets.

If Gates’s defense budget proposal is approved, there will be no new presidential or search-and-rescue helicopters (for now) and no more C-17 cargo planes. Pork-hungry members of Congress are sure to object. Although the secretary promised increases in intelligence capabilities and many other things (including 50 new Predator and Reaper drones, accelerated F-35 aircraft production, and more), these projects will not be nearly enough to satiate those eager to “plus up” their congressional districts.

While Washington hisses and spits over the secretary’s hardware recommendations, it is probably more important to ask what has changed. And if anything has, where are U.S. defense priorities now headed?

From a budget perspective, it does not appear that the basic Department of Defense budget has changed; this set of decisions may be budget-neutral, or it may even hold in its future expanded net spending requirements.

Nor does Gates’s announcement reorder defense spending away from occupations in foreign lands (the advocates call it “counterinsurgency”) or change the fact that the United States will continue to spend most of its defense budget on forms of conventional warfare most reminiscent of the mid-20th century. To fight the indistinct, unspecified conflicts that the United States may face in the foreseeable future, neither the strategy nor the hardware has changed.

For example, the Army can now expect a choice between 30-year-old heavily armored vehicles or new but inadequately armored Strykers and MRAPs. Some in the Navy is puzzled over the continued budgetary fixation with aircraft carriers when what’s needed is an effective design of an affordable frigate, or littoral combat ship.

Although today’s budget proposal means that many decisions were made, the Pentagon ship of state appears to be very much on the same basic course. The problematic nation-building strategy that mired the United States in Kosovo, Iraq, and now Afghanistan is fundamentally unchanged, and the thinking that buys only a shrinking, aging weapons inventory at increasing cost remains alive and well, just slightly different in appearance.

Examples of business as usual are easy to find. The Pentagon’s acquisition system is abysmally inefficient and unable to produce effective weapons at affordable cost, but the secretary’s endorsement of the “procurement reform” bill sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) means that nothing much will change there. Reasonable-sounding provisions that were actually riddled with subtle loopholes were even more watered down at the Defense Department’s urging. The bill, if passed, will do nothing to fix the system. Instead, there will be some new bottles for some very old wine, but the bitter taste will remain as the United States rushes to build untested aircraft (e.g., the F-35) and spend generously to defend against less — not more — likely threats (e.g., missile defense).

There is one set of decisions, even if they are unspectacular, for which Gates deserves much good credit. He promised “to reaffirm [the country’s] commitment to take care of the all-volunteer force, which, in my view represents America’s greatest strategic asset.” Hopefully, that rhetoric was not just rhetorical. The secretary placed a strong emphasis on medical research, caring for the wounded, and family support. The danger moving forward is that Congress will do little more on this fundamental issue than simply throw money at it — as it has in the past.

Winslow Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

<p> Winslow Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Previously, he worked for 31 years on national security issues for Republican and Democratic senators on Capitol Hill and for the Government Accountability Office. He is editor of the anthology The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It. </p>

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