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Gates' Swan Song: Rhetoric Vs. Reality

By William Hartung
May 24, 2011

Today Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave what was billed in some circles as his "last major policy speech." He chose to do so at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank whose analysts have been highly critical of the Obama administration's proposal to reduce national security spending by $400 billion over 12 years relative to current plans. Gates chose AEI because he wanted to position himself as the "moderate" on defense at a time when military spending is at its highest levels since World War II.

Gates, who often talks a good game when it comes to disciplining defense spending, overstated his accomplishments in this realm while understating what needs to be done to get runaway military spending under control. But even so, if his successor Leon Panetta acts on some of Gates's rhetoric we might see real cuts in Pentagon spending sooner rather than later.

For example, Gates asserted that "we're not going to see a return to Cold War defense budgets" -- implying that those were the "glory days" of Pentagon spending -- because of a diminished threat and reduced public support. But we're already spending more than we did at the height of the Cold War, and the Obama plan will sustain these high levels indefinitely. As noted in an analysis posted on the Stimson Center's invaluable web site The Will and The Wallet, the savings the Obama plan contemplates can be achieved by letting defense spending grow at the rate of inflation, with no need to reduce it in real terms.

If we could actually "return to Cold War defense budgets," we could save on average well over $100 billion per year relative to the Pentagon's current base budget of $553 billion (the budget not counting the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). That's more than three times the "savings" offered in the Obama plan.

So, by all means, let's go back to "Cold War defense budgets." One way to do so would be to follow the recommendations of the Sustainable Defense Task Force (SDTF), a group of over a dozen experts (including yours truly) that came together in the spring of 2010 at the urging of Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). The SDTF plan calls for almost $1 trillion in Pentagon spending reductions over the next decade, to be achieved by cutting unnecessary weapons projects ranging from new ballistic missile submarines to the overpriced, underperforming F-35 combat aircraft; cutting the size of the U.S. armed forces by nearly 150,000; reducing the size of the Navy; and reforming military pay and health care systems.

One of the pillars of the SDTF approach is the belief that the United States shouldn't fight any more large scale, boots-on-the-ground conflicts like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ironically, Gates himself acknowledged this in a speech earlier this year at West Point, asserting that any future Secretary of Defense should "have their head examined" if they recommended a major land war in Asia or the Middle East. But the relatively minor cuts contained in the President's defense spending plan don't reflect this realization.

In his AEI speech, Gates attempted to hide the facts about the scale of current U.S. military spending by talking about spending relative to the size of our economy (Gross Domestic Product, or GDP), rather than in absolute terms. But military spending should be gauged against the threats we need to address, not by how much of our GDP can be thrown at the Pentagon. The relevant measure is what we're actually spending, and by that measure we are at levels that Cold War defense secretaries could only have dreamed of.

Gates ultimately acknowledged that the real driver of miitary spending should be what missions we think are necessary to defend the country and its basic interests. That's where the debate needs to be joined.

Concern over the deficit will force some reductions in military spending regardless of what the Pentagon and its allies in the weapons industry may want. But while we're making choices, we should take a hard look at what it takes to defend the United States and help our allies defend themselves. A new approach to defense could save hundreds of billions of dollars per year for the foreseeable future. Given the state of our economy and our budget, there are certainly better uses for money now being squandered on an outdated miiltary strategy.

Do we need to be able to fight anywhere in the world on short notice, backed up by a dozen aircraft carrier battle groups and over 700 militlary bases? Do we need 1.5 million uniformed miitary personnel if we're not going to fight future Iraqs or Afghanistans? Given that we spend five to nine times what China does on its military and are a generation or more ahead of them in key military technologies, do we need to buy costly weapons systems designed to address the "Chinese threat?" Do we need massive nuclear overkill at the ready on costly bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles? Shouldn't our allies shoulder more of the burden of their own defense? What are the essential missions we want our armed forces to carry out?

These are the questions incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Obama administration need to answer before we let them get away with a status quo military budget that is far too high given the threats we face.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex(Nation Books, 2011).

Article copyright 2011 TMP, original article published here.

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