On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to give testimony on the FY2011 defense budget. In response to a question from Colorado Senator Udall on the likelihood of the Department of Defense having to accept future budget reductions, the Secretary provided an interesting response. First he pointed out that the world had not changed and that this country would continue to be confronted by a wide range of challenges to its security and interests. Second, he argued that at 4.6 percent of GDP the defense budget was within a reasonable range from a historical perspective. Finally, and most interesting, he stated clearly that budget reductions would require force structure cuts. There were no other options, the Secretary asserted.
In many ways, the defense budget reflects the larger federal budget with most of the spending being on the equivalent of entitlements and therefore thought to be sacrosanct. First there is the cost of personnel. This cost has been rising steadily until it now costs over $100,000 for every person in uniform. Over the past decade, military health care costs alone have gone up 114 percent. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) promises further billions for wounded warriors and military families. Operations and maintenance, the money that goes to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all the other activities of the Armed Forces, is well over half the budget and untouchable. We can’t leave the men and women on the battle line without food, shelter, ammunition or equipment that works. Finally, there is the acquisition account, both procurement of new equipment and research and development of advanced capabilities. While it is possible to trim the acquisition account by canceling some weapons programs, the reality is that you need to continually buy equipment, if only to replace the platforms that are worn out or blown up.
But in a political sense, Secretary Gates’ comments were a trap for those who would cut the defense budget. We are currently fighting two wars which is an enormous strain on the military, particularly the Army. The Secretary and his QDR have committed the military to a wide array of missions from support to civil authorities in the homeland, to disaster relief abroad, propping up failed states, hunting down loose nukes, defending the “global commons” (read the high seas, air space above us, outer space and the cyber world), working with dozens and dozens of allies and partner countries to build their military capabilities and deterring conventional conflict. The QDR weaves these missions into a complex pattern of necessary commitments based on the belief that this country is responsible for maintaining the stability of the world. Pull on any thread by forcing the Secretary to cut forces and the entire cloth unravels.
The Secretary’s threat, delivered sotto voce, is that if Congress reduces defense spending he will have to cut force structure which, in turn, could threaten progress in the current wars, undercut deterrence of Iran, embolden Al Qaeda, cause panic among our allies, allow China to catch up militarily or lead to another Katrina-like debacle. There is also the not insignificant threat at this point in time to put service persons out on the street in a period of high unemployment.
On a wide range of issues, Secretary Gates has shown himself to be the Obama Administration’s Iron Man. He took on the Vice President and administration liberals over the Afghanistan surge. He has gone toe-to-toe with the generals over programs such as the F-22, C-17 and Future Combat System. Gates is now standing eyeball-to-eyeball with the Congressional barons over everything from the defense budget, to their pet programs and, most recently, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” If the President were smart, he would try and put Gates in charge of health care reform.
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