Defense Secretary Robert Gates has a clear and pointed message for the US military establishment: Take “a hard, unsparing look” at what you’re costing the US taxpayer during difficult economic times, and look for serious belt-tightening measures.
In a speech Saturday at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, Secretary Gates said: “In each instance we must ask: First, is this respectful of the American taxpayer at a time of economic and fiscal duress? And second, is this activity or arrangement the best use of limited dollars, given the pressing needs to take care of our people, win the wars we are in, and invest in the capabilities necessary to deal with the most likely and lethal future threats?”
Gates noted that Dwight Eisenhower – who led the allies to victory in the European theater in World War II, then became president – had a “passionate belief that the U.S. should spend as much as necessary on national defense – and not one penny more.”
“And with his peerless credentials and standing, he was uniquely positioned to ask hard questions, make tough choices, and set firm limits,” Gates said.
Breaking the 'iron triangle'
Other presidents and defense secretaries have tried to rein in what was seen as unnecessary Pentagon spending, in particular big-ticket items beloved by the so-called “iron triangle” of military services, defense contractors, and their champions in Congress – the “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower famously warned of in his 1961 farewell address to the nation.
But “looking back from today’s vantage point, what I find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set and limits enforced,” he said. “This became increasingly rare in the decades that followed, despite the best efforts of some of my predecessors and other attempts at reform over the years.”
“Ripe for scrutiny,” he said, is the overhead that accounts for nearly 40 percent of the defense budget – the activity and bureaucracy that supports the military mission.
In addition, Gates pointed to major weapons systems he finds questionable, including the alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the C-17 airlifter programs.
“I have strongly recommended a presidential veto if either program is included in next year’s defense budget legislation,” Gates said – a challenge to lawmakers in whose districts the parts for such programs are made.
The coming fight with Congress
Anticipating the fights he no doubt faces on Capitol Hill, Gates asks:
“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?”
Specifically, and in addition to the weapons systems he wants to trim or ax, Gates is demanding a two to three percent reduction in overhead costs in the fiscal 2012 budget request.
But, he adds, “Simply taking a few percent off the top of everything on a one-time basis will not do,” Gates said. “These savings must stem from root-and-branch changes that can be sustained and added to over time.”
In a discussion with reporters before his speech, Gates – a holdover from the Bush administration highly respected by both parties – said, “It is not a great mystery what needs to change.”
“What it takes,” he said, “is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices – choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.”