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Robert Gates changes the Pentagon’s priorities

Page history last edited by Rog Rydberg 10 years, 11 months ago

A daring punt

Apr 8th 2009

From The Economist print edition


MORE men at the expense of machines; more drones rather than top-end fighter jets and future bombers; more helicopters for combat troops rather than a replacement for the presidential chopper; more coastal vessels and fewer aircraft-carriers; better cyberdefences, but scaled-back missile defences and laser weapons. In short, the new American defence budget would spend more on today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and less to stave off future threats from China or Russia.


The proposals have delighted those who think America will fight irregular “small wars” for the foreseeable future, and horrified those who believe it must be ready to fight big conventional ones. John McCain thinks the 2010 budget is “a major step in the right direction”. But a fellow Republican senator, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, muttered of “disarming America”.


That is stretching the point. With a defence budget request of $534 billion next year (a 4% increase on this year), plus $130 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is hardly cutting defence. But the priorities outlined on April 6th have the fervour of a new administration determined to do things differently—except that the man at the top is the man who ran the Pentagon in the last Bush years, Robert Gates.


How to explain the transformation in “Gates 2.0” as some pundits now call the defence secretary? To begin with, Mr Gates has spent the past two years trying to avert military failure, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, rather than taking on powerful constituencies over contracts for expensive equipment. He has given notice for nearly a year that the Pentagon’s spending priorities would have to change to support its new emphasis on counter-insurgency. Moreover, the financial crisis means that America will not be able to spend more to equip itself both for small wars and for big ones. Mr Gates says the budget is “one of those rare chances to match virtue to necessity, to critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements”


The F-22: exquisite but unaffordable


For many years the strain in defence spending has been relieved by supplemental spending. But Mr Gates says long-term commitments—such as health care for wounded and traumatised troops and other forms of personnel spending for an expanding army and marine corps—should be brought into the base budget. Special forces, the tip of the spear in fighting terrorists (and training allies), will also get a boost in numbers.


All this means there will be less money for expensive kit. And the kit that is bought should support fighting units: a 62% increase in unmanned drones, for instance. Mr Gates argues that America’s superiority in conventional forces “is sustainable for the medium term”. This means trading off “exquisite” top-end equipment, such as the F-22 fighter, for less capable but cheaper stuff, like the F-35 joint-strike fighter being made with several other allies. Decisions on a new bomber would be deferred, pending nuclear talks with Russia. Spending on missile defence would be pared and would focus on what works best.


With billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake, Mr Gates can expect strong opposition from many quarters. At a meeting with defence pundits, Mr Gates used an image from American football to describe his situation: he said he had punted the ball, caught it himself, and now had Congress bearing down on him fast.


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