All the pundits are certain that the dominant issue in the upcoming 2012 election will be the state of the economy. No doubt this will be a key determinant of winners and losers. But a sleeper issue that may come to the fore is the role of the United States in the world and our willingness to maintain a strong and capable military.
This will be the case if outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has his wish. In his response to President Obama’s call for a $400 billion reduction in projected security spending over the next twelve years, Gates has focused not just on where and how to cut but on the implications of such reductions on U.S. military capabilities and, in turn, on this country’s ability to project power and influence in the world. In a series of speeches over the past several weeks, the Secretary warned against so-called “salami slicing” cuts to the defense budget that threaten to create a hollow force.
The reality is that to maintain a military force of the size and character of that deployed today, including paying escalating pay and benefits costs, ensuring modernization of equipment, sending people and platforms around the world and supporting a large infrastructure requires more than 4 percent of GDP. This is below the historic post World War Two average. Yet, as the Secretary noted, conditions today make it unlikely that the nation will be willing to pay this bill. Moreover, he admitted that the efforts to squeeze savings out of the department have not met with the degree of success he would like. This is the result, in part, of the inability of DoD to generate accurate information on spending and personnel.
Yesterday, at the American Enterprise Institute, Gates made the most forceful exposition of his view that the nation’s leaders must grapple with the strategic implications of slashing the defense budget. “If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military, people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country, as well as for the variety of military operations we have around the world if lower priority missions are scaled back or eliminated. They need to understand what it could mean for a smaller pool of troops and their families if America is forced into a protracted land war again — yes, the kind no defense secretary should recommend anytime soon, but one we may not be able to avoid. To shirk this discussion of risks and consequences — and the hard decisions that must follow — I would regard as managerial cowardice.”
Gates went on to assert the importance of maintaining a superbly trained and equipped force, even if it must shrink in size and divest of some less-critical missions. The Secretary stressed the need to continue with vital modernization programs including, specifically, the new aerial tanker, F-35 fighter, Navy shipbuilding and Army and Marine Corps vehicles and helicopters and ballistic missile submarines. To this he might have added fielding a new bomber, developing the next generation of unmanned aerial platforms for the Air Force and Navy, providing for cyber defense, deploying advanced missile defenses and a new electronic warfare capability. The point is that if the choice is between a military that is large and obsolescing or smaller but modern, the Secretary would choose the latter.
After the end of the Cold War the nation avoided the obvious debate on America’s role in the world and the military requirements for global leadership. For the past twenty years administrations of both parties have been kicking the can down the road, finding the existence of a large and powerful military to be an asset without having to justify its costs. Gates is saying that this debate can no longer be avoided. The question of America’s willingness to invest in the military could be a major issue in the 2012 campaign.
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