Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Gates vs. Congress: The last crusade

By Travis Sharp Best Defense chief defense budget correspondent In his latest fusillade against Pentagonal inertia, Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday reiterated his commitment to “belt-tightening, making tough choices, and essentially refocusing available resources” within DOD’s budget. Gates has kicked up a lot of rhetorical dust in recent weeks by asking tough questions about the ...

Jonah Sparks/flickr
Jonah Sparks/flickr
Jonah Sparks/flickr

By Travis Sharp
Best Defense
chief defense budget correspondent

In his latest fusillade against Pentagonal inertia, Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday reiterated his commitment to "belt-tightening, making tough choices, and essentially refocusing available resources" within DOD's budget.

Gates has kicked up a lot of rhetorical dust in recent weeks by asking tough questions about the need for several high-priced weapons systems. Yet literal-minded defense wonks will tell you that Gates' stated objective is actually quite modest: cutting $10-$15 billion, a two percent smidgen of DOD's annual budget, in "overhead costs" and redirecting those savings toward force structure and modernization.

By Travis Sharp
Best Defense
chief defense budget correspondent

In his latest fusillade against Pentagonal inertia, Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday reiterated his commitment to “belt-tightening, making tough choices, and essentially refocusing available resources” within DOD’s budget.

Gates has kicked up a lot of rhetorical dust in recent weeks by asking tough questions about the need for several high-priced weapons systems. Yet literal-minded defense wonks will tell you that Gates’ stated objective is actually quite modest: cutting $10-$15 billion, a two percent smidgen of DOD’s annual budget, in “overhead costs” and redirecting those savings toward force structure and modernization.

Though modest, Gates’ agenda faces a foe that has inspired fear and loathing in many a defense secretary: the U.S. Congress during an election year. In a demonstration of the uphill climb Gates faces, the House Armed Services Committee last week added funding for several things the Pentagon didn’t ask for, including an alternate engine for a Joint Strike Fighter program that is already under scrutiny for cost increases and schedule delays. Gates has threatened repeatedly to recommend that President Obama veto any bill that funds the alternate engine, but defense kingpins Sen. Carl Levin, Sen. Daniel Inouye, and Rep. Ike Skelton have all publicly voiced their dissent.

Such congressional independent-mindedness threatens to detract from the legacy of perhaps the best defense secretary of all time. Expect Dr. Gates, who may be in the last year of the last job he’ll ever have, to respond accordingly.

Yet things on Capitol Hill aren’t all bad. To dispel any sense that Congress is just hopelessly lousy and should stay away from defense policy — in fact, an active and informed Congress is more important than ever in an era of creeping executive power-check out the details of the House Armed Services Committee’s new authorization bill. There is some pretty cool stuff in there on an alternative career track for commissioned officers (as Abu Mook noted), Service energy initiatives, and bolstered counter-ideology and Special Ops activities.

Another thing to watch is Rep. Gene Taylor’s determined effort to get the Navy to share with Congress its analysis of alternatives on the next generation ballistic missile submarine (SSBN-X) slated to replace existing Ohio-class subs. Taylor recognizes that the $85 billion SSBN-X fleet will make dollars scarce for other shipbuilding programs, including the surface combatants built in his district. He has been wondering aloud whether a smaller, cheaper Virginia-class-style submarine armed with a new, smaller ballistic missile could still provide the range, payload, and performance characteristics required for sea-based strategic deterrence. Just promise that you won’t lead a crusade to fund an alternate submarine program, OK congressman?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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