Monday, May 10, 2010

Gates, like Obama, invokes Eisenhower as prudent steward

Robert Gates at the Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas, on May 8:
Finally, this Department’s approach to requirements must change.  Before making claims of requirements not being met or alleged “gaps” – in ships, tactical fighters, personnel, or anything else – we need to evaluate the criteria upon which requirements are based and the wider real world context.  For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?  Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?

These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief.  They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today.  And they are the kinds of question that we must all – civilian, military, in government and out – be willing to ask and answer in order to have a balanced military portfolio geared to real world requirements and a defense budget that is fiscally and politically sustainable over time.

That is one of several cruxes in a speech relentless in its resolve to control Pentagon spending without compromising the military's ability to address the threats it's likely to face.

Lest anyone think that Gates is tailoring his priorities to those of the President he serves, compare his speech to the Heritage Foundation, 5/13/08:

But in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities, it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military. And it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms – ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank – for some time to come. The record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths...[snip]

Two points on the subject of procurement:

First, I believe that any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that, as I mentioned, are most likely to engage America’s military in the coming decades. In Texas, I had an opportunity to see a demonstration of the parts of the Army’s Future Combat Systems that have moved from the drawing board to reality. A program like FCS – whose total cost could exceed $200 billion if completely built out – must continue to demonstrate its value for the types of irregular challenges we will face, as well as for full-spectrum warfare.

Second, I would stress that the perennial procurement cycle – going back many decades – of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end.
 That latter point, too, came in for sustained attention this past Saturday:

The private sector has flattened and streamlined the middle and upper echelons of its organization charts, yet the Defense Department continues to maintain a top-heavy hierarchy that more reflects 20th Century headquarters superstructure than 21st Century realities.  Two decades after the end of the Cold War led to steep cuts in U.S. forces in Europe, our military still has more than 40 generals, admirals, or civilian equivalents based on the continent.  Yet we scold our allies over the bloat in NATO headquarters.

Consider that a request for a dog-handling team in Afghanistan – or for any other unit – has to go through no fewer than five four-star headquarters in order to be processed, validated, and eventually dealt with.  This during an era when more and more responsibility – including decisions with strategic consequences – is being exercised by young captains and colonels on the battlefield. 
A couple of further notes -- apologies for the scattershot approach....

1. Early on, Gates echoed Obama's invocation of Eisenhower's warning that the nation's military strength rested on its economic strength.  He then stressed Eisenhower's military conservatism:

In his famous farewell address he warned: “Our arms must be mighty, ready for resistant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”

Yet, during his presidency, Eisenhower resisted pressure to intervene militarily in Vietnam and in the Middle East.  This restraint wasn’t just a true soldier’s hatred of war, and all of its attendant costs and horrors.  It came in no small part from an understanding that even a superpower such as the United States – then near the zenith of its strength and prosperity relative to the rest of the world – did not have unlimited political, economic and military resources.  Expending them in one area – say a protracted war in the developing world – would sap the strength available to do anything else.
Do I sense an implicit rebuke to a certain recently ended Presidency?  And again, here:

The attacks of September 11th, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Which brings us to the situation we face and the choices we have today – as a defense department and as a country.  Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny.  The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.
I'm reminded of another Gates speech from the spring of 2008 -- April 21, at West Point -- structured as a meditation upon three principles laid out by Fox Connor, a mentor of Eisenhower and George Marshall. Conner's principles of war for a democracy, Gates recalled, were these:  
Never fight unless you have to; 
Never fight alone;
And never fight for long.
Gates did suggest that the last point might be obsolete in an era of asymmetric warfare. But he also implied that we did not "have to" fight in Iraq. 

2.  Gates laid out in detail the forces militating against meaningful, structural, effective  cost-saving in the Pentagon budget: bureaucratic inertia, entrenched political and economic interests. He implied that no one since Eisenhower has had the combination of military authority and bureaucratic savvy required to hold the ine against Pentagon waste.  But he also made a rather strong claim for the beginnings of success:
For the better part of two years I have focused on the Pentagon’s major weapons programs – to make sure we are buying the right things in the right quantities.  Last year, the Department made more than 30 tough choices in this area, cancelling or curtailing major weapons systems that were either performing poorly or excess to real world needs – about $330 billion dollars worth as measured over the life of the terminated programs.  We also began to overhaul the Pentagon’s processes for acquisitions and contracting.

$330 billion is not chump change -- even if spread over the life of terminated programs that may have lasted decades.  

Could a Democratic President have any better cover -- or a more effective ally -- in controlling military spending in a time of protracted war and a massive structural deficit?

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