As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, April 06, 2009

Gates v. The Military Industrial Complex... or Just Building a New One?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a budget recommendation that is shocking in its sweeping change, extremely unusual for the Pentagon's go-along, get-along approach to military contracting over the past 50 years or so. Robert Farley summarizes.

1. No more F-22s.
2. Replacement Air Force bomber delayed indefinitely.
3. Ballistic missile defense funding leans toward the Navy.
4. Aircraft carrier acquisition slowed, with the fleet eventually dropping to 10 carriers.
5. Next generation cruiser (CGX) delayed indefinitely.
6. VH-71 Presidential helicopter dead.
7. No more than three DDG-1000, and maybe only one.
8. Future Combat Systems funding slashed.

Farley says "This is why Bob Gates is still secretary of defense; Obama didn't believe that such cuts would be possible under a Democratic secretary." Perhaps so. And I agree with a lot of it; the F-22 is obselete in the context of current wars, for example. Cold War-era weapons systems have no place in the modern military. These cuts aren't THAT deep - missile defense still gets about $1 billion, for example - but they are significant.

But let's consider these "cuts" fully - they would not represent an overall scaling down of the Pentagon budget, but a lateral move into a forward-looking belief that the wars of the future will be counter-insurgencies and not wars of territory. I agree with Noah Schachtman that this makes a certain amount of sense, as major weapons programs are useless in such combat missions, while warm bodies are at a premium. I see this as an effort to SAVE the military budget, not slash it. While it makes sense to focus on funding the services needed for the wars we actually fight, in the final analysis the total budget still swamps the rest of the world many times over, troops are still based in 130 countries, and the Pentagon still dwarfs the rest of the budget on discretionary spending. It seems to me like this is trading one set of contractors for another, in a fashion. That's why those who represent the counter-insurgency faction of the military are thrilled.

There may be savings in the acquisitions and the contracting process in this request - I certainly hope so. And Gates' comment that "this is a reform budget" gives cause for optimism. In addition, with lots of this budget devoted to health care and veteran's services, perhaps engaging in less wars will drop costs substantially, in ways that could not be done while building giant weapons systems. But I'm not seeing much of a challenge to the idea that military budget must be outsized relative to the overall budget forever. And a perusal of the Congressional reaction to this recommendation is pretty telling:

"Secretary Gates has set out major changes to the defense budget based on changed assumptions about the wars our military must be prepared to fight. This is a good faith effort, and I appreciate the hard work and thoughtful consideration Secretary Gates and his staff put into these proposals.

"However, the buck stops with Congress, which has the critical Constitutional responsibility to decide whether to support these proposals. In the weeks ahead, my colleagues and I will carefully consider these proposals and look forward to working with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen as we prepare the Fiscal Year 2010 defense authorization act."

In other words, nice budget, now move over while I mark it up.

Significantly, John McCain seems to be on the side of reform. Jim Webb said this: "The secretary's announcement today is highly unorthodox ... Secretary Gates has proposed funding increases, reductions, deferrals, and cancellations in numerous defense programs. In the absence of a more detailed description of the strategic underpinnings justifying his funding priorities--including an assessment of the level of risk posed to U.S. national security interests--it is difficult to evaluate them in isolation."

The weapons contractor industry will be quick to strike against this budget as well, and almost for that reason alone, I see value in Gates' product. But it's hard to see this as much more than a juggling of numbers in what remains too high a budget for war.

...Predictable blather from James Inhofe:

"I cannot believe what I heard today," Inhofe said in a statement. "President Obama is disarming America. Never before has a president so ravaged the military at a time of war."

Yes, "ravaged" them by eliminating weapons systems that aren't being used in this war. Sadly, such demagoguery is likely to work.

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