Presentation at The Heritage Foundation
There are so many topics one could discuss under the rubric of America at risk, global challenges today and in the future that it is hard to know where to begin. I could speak about the difficult financial times we face and the historic reality that when great powers chronically overspend, driving themselves towards fiscal insolvency, they usually end up as chapters in musty history books. Or, I could talk of a world spinning more and more out of control, one in which the institutions and alliances that kept peace and order, both political and economic, no longer seem capable of doing their jobs. I could simply limit myself to events of recent weeks such as the North Korean nuclear bomb and missile tests or the reelection of the madman of Teheran.
The greatest challenge to American security in 2009 and beyond is not overseas, it is here at home. And it is not the economy, the military or our infrastructure. The greatest challenge to America’s security is a man. He occupies the largest office on the Pentagon’s outermost E-ring. I am speaking of the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.
You may be surprised that I would speak of the Secretary of Defense in this manner. But examine his record. Secretary Gates has done more than any other Secretary of Defense in living memory to challenge and change national threat assessments, U.S. defense strategy, military doctrines, Pentagon acquisition policy and the Title 10 authorities of the Armed Services. Over the past two and a half years he has dragged the Department of Defense (DoD) away from the disease he called “next-war-itis” and towards an almost singular focus on the current war. Secretary Gates almost single-handedly was responsible for the acquisition and deployment of tens of thousands of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles that are saving American lives.
There is no question that Secretary Gates is a thoughtful man, a great administrator and a good politician. Were his judgment truly impeccable, one might be inclined to defer to his views on policy, strategy, military organization and acquisition. Yet, there are already many reasons to question his decisions. Let me mention just a few:
• Despite Russia’s announcement of the first flight test of a fifth-generation fighter, the Secretary halted production of the F-22. Together with the decision not to buy additional C-17s or F-18s and to delay development of a new strategic bomber, this means that the United States will soon be left with just two active aircraft production lines, the F-35 and the C-130.
• In the face of North Korea’s clear and demonstrated intentions to build nuclear weapons and develop long-range ballistic missiles able to reach the United States, the Secretary cut the number of ground-based interceptors that will be deployed to defend the United States and essentially cancelled the other programs — the Airborne Laser and Kinetic Energy Interceptor — which could provide defense against such long-range threats.
• He cancelled the program to build a new Presidential helicopter, the VH-71, mandating a restart despite the option to restructure the program, building a cheaper variant based on the same airframe. Given the money that has already been spent and the costs of terminating and restarting the program, a new fleet of helicopters based on the same requirements as the original will almost certainly cost as much or more than those projected for the original program.
Were this all, the scales would clearly balance in his favor. For good or ill we remember those Secretaries of War or Defense that led us through this nation’s wars or sought to change the way the department and the military conducted the business of national defense. And Secretary Gates is doing both.
The reason I have chosen to characterize the Secretary of Defense as the greatest challenge to America’s security is that virtually alone and seemingly unchecked he is redirecting the nation’s security strategy. This is being done in the absence of a National Security Strategy document or even the outcome of the Congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, the QDR as it is called. In fact, the Secretary will provide guidance for the next round in the defense budget process by the beginning of July, thereby rendering the QDR essentially null and void.
His beliefs and assumptions are guiding decisions on defense strategy, the QDR and inevitably the highest levels of national security policy. Rather than being circumspect with regard to his charter, particularly in the absence of a national debate on the subject, Secretary Gates is taking this nation down the path to a new security paradigm that could result in less safety for this country.
Let me point out a few of the major unquestioned assumptions and concepts as drawn from the 2008 National Defense Strategy, the Secretary’s statements and guidance for the QDR.
• We should take a near-term focus in national security — Even as China continues to increase its defense spending by double digits year after year and Russia became the first nation to conduct cyber warfare during its campaign against Georgia. For someone who diagnosed the U.S. military as having “this-war-itis” it seems that the Secretary is suffering from “this war myopia.”
• We must pursue an expanded global war on terror — Now called Global Conflict against Violent Extremists. The QDR calls for pursuing this effort in several dozen countries simultaneously. This is even as it is increasingly clear that Al Qaeda’s star has waned.
• We can take risk in the near- and medium-term — This is based on the argument that we are vastly superior in conventional capabilities to all current adversaries and that no peer competitor will arrive on the scene until 2025. 2025 is only 15 years away. Our conventional superiority is a wasting asset. Given how long it takes to design, develop, acquire and deploy new military capabilities, even if we settle for the 80 percent solution that is right around the corner. So, for example, if we need air superiority capabilities in 2025, and we are not going to buy sufficient F-22s, we better begin a new air superiority fighter program today.
• We can and must place greater reliance on allies and partners — Our traditional allies are losing steam even faster than are we. In many instances, decades of such work has not produced the desired results. This strategy is particularly problematic since we put impediments in the way of allies acquiring the necessary technologies to defend them. For example, there are restrictions that make it all but impossible to sell F-22s to Japan.
• Continue to provide regional deterrence and maintain forward presence — This from a posture that is more and more based in the Continental United States.
• Commit to responding to multiple, overlapping global challenges — This means wars but also other major incidents such as the collapse of a nuclear-armed state or a massive disaster.
When these demands are tallied, I would venture to guess that they exceed the commitments made by the Bush Administration. More important, they represent, if anything, an expansion of America’s role in the world, our responsibilities and at a time when the world seems more likely than ever to spin out of control. A military committed doctrinally and in terms of capabilities to providing stability throughout the world in essence creates its own demands. The more we do, the more we will have to do. The more we seek to combat violent extremism, prop up failing states and ensure regional power balances, the more that becomes our national security strategy.
But there is more. Not only must the military take on more responsibilities but further alter its character and composition.
The Secretary has insisted on the need to” rebalance the force.” He speaks of a 10-50-40 mix, meaning 10 percent specialized for low-end contingencies, 50 percent focused on the high end and 40 percent that can swing both ways. The consensus of senior military leaders with whom I have spoken is that while high-end forces can swing, this is much more difficult for those at the low end. In addition, our ability to predict the future is so poor that I would hesitate before accepting the idea that future threats will resemble those we face today.
In order to meet the new, expanded set of mission requirements, the rebalanced force will need more people and relatively less technology — the one lesson of a post-industrial economy is the imperative to replace people with technology. Yet, the Secretary is moving DoD in the opposite direction.
The Secretary also assumes that all this can be done with flat or declining budgets. For people my age that is often referred to as “your ego writing checks your body can’t cover.”
What is missing is a definition of national interests which, I believe, are not coterminous with global peace and stability. We need a clear appreciation of national interests and the recognition that our resources and the lives of those in uniform are a scarce and precious commodity that must not again be expended lightly. For me this means fewer obligations, trying less to fashion others into the allies we wish they would be and making sure that we do not take risks when it comes to those high-end threats that could destroy this nation or fatally damage critical national interests.
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