If the outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates can be said to have a major vice it has been his tendency to telegraph and even undermine the results of major strategic reviews performed by his department — even before the analyses have been completed. For example, in early 2009Foreign Affairs magazine published an article by the Secretary that laid out his views on how the Pentagon’s strategy and acquisition program needed to be reshaped for a new age. In April, 2009, he went even further, announcing a series of programmatic decisions that killed or restructured dozens of major programs. Taken together, these actions basically determined the results of the Defense Department’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
Now the department is undertaking what it characterizes as a “comprehensive review” driven by the administration’s desire to cut $400 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next twelve years. The review is intended not just to propose what programs to cut but to be an examination of missions, capabilities and even America’s role in the world so as to identify options for the President.
In keeping with his earlier pattern, the Secretary has all but preempted this effort. In a series of speeches around the country and overseas, he has basically telegraphed the review’s punches. In some of the most eloquent language of any of his speeches, the Secretary seems to have argued against the very premise of the review, that defense spending must be significantly reduced. He has made a coherent case for the continuation of this country’s role as “primus inter pares” on the world stage, asking if not the United States who will defend the West and its global interests? Based on this view of American national security interests, Gates warned that major reductions in the defense budget will have far-reaching negative implications for global stability and U.S. security interests. Gates has sought to place a verbal fence around the Pentagon’s major acquisition programs including the F-35, a new strategic bomber, Navy shipbuilding, Army and Marine Corps vehicles and helicopters and a new ballistic missile submarine.
Not satisfied with making this argument only in front of domestic audiences, Secretary Gates took his case on the road. In his final appearance before the Shangri-la Dialogues, an inter-governmental security forum held annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies attended by defense ministers, permanent heads of ministries and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific states, he repeated his argument that the United States is an essential actor on the Asia-Pacific security stage. But he went much farther, not just arguing for the importance of key modernization programs but suggesting what the comprehensive review will conclude:
“. . . having removed the most troubled and questionable weapons programs from the budget, we are left with modernization efforts that our defense leaders have deemed absolutely critical to the future — relating to air superiority and mobility, long-range strike, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Though the review is not complete, I am confident that these key remaining modernization programs — systems that are of particular importance to our military strategy in Asia — will rank at or near the top of our defense budget priorities in the future.”
Unlike past appearances at Shangri-la in which he took the opportunity to chastise Beijing for China’s massive military modernization program and its bullying behavior towards its neighbors, this year Gates took a much more positive stance regarding U.S.-China relations. Yet, even here he took an indirect dig at Chinese efforts to develop systems particularly designed to threaten U.S. air and naval forces. Referring to the programs he sees as critical to U.S. security, Gates pointed out that, “Many of those key modernization programs would address one of the principal security challenges we see growing over the horizon: The prospect that new and disruptive technologies and weapons could be employed to deny U.S. forces access to key sea routes and lines of communication.” China is the only nation deploying such technologies for the purpose of denying the U.S. access to the Western Pacific.
Robert Gates is scheduled to retire in less than a month. He will be replaced by a long-time Washington veteran and Obama Administration stalwart, Leon Panetta. But the outgoing Secretary of Defense seems to have significantly circumscribed Panetta’s ability to make strategic decisions for his department as well as the outcome of the comprehensive review.
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