Shadow Government

Gates’s defense cuts: A glass half full — but also half empty

Yesterday Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced cuts in the U.S. defense program amounting to $78 billion over the next five years. Whereas both he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, had advised the White House that 2-3 percent growth in defense spending was required, the Obama administration will ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Yesterday Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced cuts in the U.S. defense program amounting to $78 billion over the next five years. Whereas both he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, had advised the White House that 2-3 percent growth in defense spending was required, the Obama administration will apparently give the Defense Department less than a 1 percent increase over what it requested for 2011.

Gates’s decisions amounted to a mixed bag. On the positive side, Gates cancelled the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Army’s next-generation short-range surface-to-air missile system and put the Marines’ variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on "two-year probation" due to cost overruns and delays. All are sensible moves. Gates also announced an increase in health care premiums for working-age military retirees. This is a good first step, but only a first step, in reining in ballooning defense personnel costs.

Although Gates decided to terminate several programs of marginal utility, he didn’t go far enough in using the resulting savings to beef up the capabilities the United States requires to protect American interests in coming years. As the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel argued last year, the United States may actually need to increase defense expenditures in order to counter anti-access challenges, such as those posed by China, and acquire new equipment to replace systems that were last modernized during the Reagan administration thirty years ago. Although Gates yesterday finally announced support for the Air Force’s next-generation bomber and allocated additional funding to the Navy’s unmanned combat strike system, much more needs to be done to maintain stability in the Western Pacific in the face of China’s military modernization. The Defense Department should, for example:

  • Commit itself to acquiring the next-generation bomber in 2018. Specifically, the Air Force should begin purchasing the bomber in blocks of 10, allowing for early fielding as well as an evolutionary approach that will allow it to be upgraded as new capabilities prove themselves.
  • Scrap the current program to develop a land-based conventional Prompt Global Strike system in favor of a new, cheaper, and more technologically feasible conventionally armed submarine-launched ballistic missile.
  • Acquire additional Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines to bolster U.S. undersea warfare and long-range conventional strike capability

Efficiency in defense is a laudatory goal. However, it should always take second place to the imperative of protecting U.S. interests in an increasingly challenging security environment.

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