"When a true genius appears," the English satirist Jonathan Swift
wrote, "you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in
confederacy against him." Genius might be a bit much as a description of
the secretary of defense, but Robert Gates's budget proposal has certainly
gathered all the right opponents. There are the defense contractors,
worried that decades of fraudulent accounting are coming to a halt; the
Beltway consultants for whom the "war on terror" has been a bonanza; the
armed services, which have gotten used to having every fantasy funded; and
the members of Congress who protect all this institutionalized corruption
to keep jobs in their states.
In recent decades, defense budgeting has existed in a dreamland, where
ever more elaborate weapons are built without regard to enemies, costs or
trade-offs. In 2008, the General Accountability Office said cost overruns
for the Pentagon's 95 biggest weapons programs added up to $300 billion.
Remember, that's just the overruns! The system has become so pervasive and
entrenched that most people no longer bother to get outraged.
Much of the Pentagon budget is based on wish lists from the services,
which are often lists that were conceived during the Cold War. The Air
Force developed such a strong attachment to its F-22 fighter-plane program
that it failed to notice that the Soviet Union had collapsed and no
great-power rival was around to get into dogfights with the U.S. military.
We're fighting two wars now, and not one of the 135 or so F-22s that we
have is being used in either theater. If you're wondering why the program
is still around, here's one reason: Its manufacture has been spread across
Gates also trims the Navy's wish list, cutting its destroyer program.
But here his ambition suddenly dries up. He did propose that the United
States scale back its aircraft-carrier groups, going from 11 to 10 -- but it
will happen 31 years from now. Even so, of course, he faces the usual
conservative opposition. The Wall Street Journal worries that a 300-ship
Navy is "perilously small." In the recent clash with Somali pirates, it
points out, U.S. warships were "hours away." Well, if you've traveled by
sea, you know that ships move slower than planes. Given the vastness of the
oceans, the fact that American naval vessels could reach a relatively
nonstrategic location within a few hours is actually a sign of the
incredible reach of the Navy, not the opposite.
Gates has really just begun a much-needed process of rethinking
American defense strategy after the Cold War. He has focused sensibly on
the wars we are actually fighting to make sure the military is equipped to
wage them successfully. But while we don't need the F-22, we are still
going to make 2,443 F-35s at an eventual cost of $1 trillion. Do we really
need those? What is the thinking behind the size of that program?
American military budgets should be based on two competing imperatives.
The first is that we are likely to be engaged in small, complex conflicts
with much weaker opponents in difficult terrain. In other words, Iraq and
Afghanistan. The Gates budget makes intelligent provision for these kinds
of wars -- in which manpower and intelligence are key. The second
requirement is deterrence. The U.S. military protects global sea lanes and,
in a general sense, preserves the peace. If Somali pirates were to cause
too much trouble, eventually the U.S. military would help to tackle them.
If the Chinese were considering offensive action in Asia, it is the
possible American response that would make them cautious.
But these imperatives can surely be satisfied with a military that is
leaner, more cost-effective and more efficient and that does keep somewhere
in mind the capacity of potential adversaries. The U.S. Navy has 11
aircraft-carrier groups. China has none. The U.S. defense budget for 2009
is $655 billion. China's is $70 billion, and Russia's is $50 billion.
America's cumulative cost overruns add up to more than the total annual
defense budgets of China, Russia, Britain and France combined. This smacks
less of deterrence and more of mindless extravagance and waste.
Coming up next for Gates is the Quadrennial Defense Review. He should
take the opportunity -- his last one to leave a long legacy -- to move the
United States toward a military strategy that is shaped by the world we
actually inhabit. That would make him a true genius. He will certainly have
all the dunces arrayed against him to prove it.
The writer is editor of Newsweek International and co-host of PostGlobal,
an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is