Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has shown himself to be the most thoughtful leader of the Department of Defense in at least a generation. He challenged each of the military services to rethink the value of their most sacred totems — aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, main battle tanks and amphibious warfare ships. He called for radical changes in the way his department operated, asking it to become more business-like, reduce inefficiencies and cut the number of general officers. Gates showed rare character and wisdom when he admitted publicly that his effort at insourcing, that is replacing private sector workers with government employees, was not saving money and needed to be halted.
Now taking a “victory lap” before leaving office, the Secretary is using the bully pulpit to warn both the nation’s leaders and the American people against precipitous reductions in defense spending. To an audience at Fort Leonard Wood, Gates took on his own bosses at the White House and in Congress. “My concern is that almost everybody in Washington sees this as a math problem, as opposed to a strategic problem. … But I think the real issue is that if we’re going to take a big hit in the budget, I want policy makers [and] the political leadership of the country to think of it in terms of ‘What additional risk are you prepared to take?’” He went on to point out that if we reduce the size of the military, going from a strategy of being able to fight two wars at the same time to one, we give potential adversaries an opportunity. “So when people make these decisions, I don’t want them to treat it as a math problem. I want them to understand that there are strategic and military consequences to these budgetary decisions, and they need to make conscious choices about what capabilities and what risks they’re willing to deal with.”
Yesterday at the University of Notre Dame, in phrases that were at times almost Churchillian, Gates made his most articulate argument for maintaining a strong defense and spending what is necessary to ensure that capability. He warned against two tendencies in American history. The first is “to conclude after each war that the fundamental nature of man and the iron realities of nations have changed. That history in all of its unpredictable and tragic dimensions has come to a civilized end. That we will no longer have to confront foreign enemies with size, steel, and strength.” The second tendency is “to avert our eyes in the belief that remote events elsewhere in the world need not engage this country — from the assassination of an Austrian archduke in unknown Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1914 to the rise of a group called the Taliban in Afghanistan and their alliance with an organization called Al Qaeda in the 1990s.” The reality is that this nation’s security has been repeatedly challenged in the past and undoubtedly will be again. Thus, “The lessons of history tell us we must not diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon, because ultimately they will need to be confronted.”
Secretary Gates went on to make the supreme existential argument for a strong national defense.
“If history — and religion — teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world, people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their greed for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women. More than any other Secretary of Defense, I have been a strong advocate of soft power — of the critical importance of diplomacy and development as fundamental components of our foreign policy and national security. But make no mistake, the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power — the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military.”
We live in a world in which aggressors and dictators not only exist but are acquiring and employing the modern instruments of war. It was Libyan dictator Gaddafi’s use of jet aircraft, main battle tanks and long-range artillery to slaughter his own people that necessitated the establishment of a no-fly zone. Tanks roam the cities of Syria. Hamas and Hezbollah possess an arsenal of thousands of rockets. Iran is developing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. China is testing a stealth fighter, launching its first aircraft carrier and building five classes of modern attack submarines. Even as we debate the extent of our defense budget cuts, defense spending by potential adversaries is increasing.
The reality is that we have the military we want and need and we use it extensively. It is a military that is wearing out after a decade of war. The Pentagon not only needs to maintain its force structure but it must modernize its forces. The tactical fighter fleet needs to become a fifth-generation force with the acquisition of the F-35. The geriatric B-52 needs to be supplanted by a new long-range bomber. A new generation of stealthy UAVs is needed to deal with high threat air environments. The Navy needs to recapitalize its surface fleet with additional destroyers and the Littoral Combat Ship. In a world of proliferated ballistic missile technology, theater missile defenses based on the Aegis/Standard Missile duo is a necessity.
Gates concluded his remarks at Notre Dame with a warning: “If America declines to lead in the world, others will not.” Unfortunately, those who would lead share neither our values nor our vision of a stable, peaceful and democratic world. In the end, the ultimate guarantee of our security and that of the Free World is a strong U.S. military.
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