April 15, 2009, 4:00 a.m.

Nothing Stimulating about Defense?
On the cutting room floor.

By Jim Talent

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced he would ask Congress to cut a number of defense procurement and modernization programs. No surprise there. President Obama is a man of the Left, and ever since Vietnam, the Left has downplayed the importance and distrusted the use of American military power. The Obama administration has been pushing the Joint Chiefs of Staff to cut defense spending since its first week in office.

Normally, it would be unusual for the secretary of defense to announce program cuts before sending the Department of Defense budget to the White House. But in this case, that was no surprise either. Earlier this month, InsideDefense.com reported that Secretary Gates would be making such an announcement to give the administration political distance from responsibility for weakening American security.

What was surprising was Gates’s incoherence on a tactical level and his failure even to acknowledge the growing funding crisis his department is facing. It is hard to see what strategic or tactical military ends his recommended cuts are designed to achieve; it is by no means certain that his decisions, even if Congress endorses them, will end up saving money; and in any event, the secretary simply ignored the elephant in the room: the fact that without a large and immediate increase in procurement funding, the Department of Defense cannot buy the new generation of ships, planes, and tracked vehicles that are necessary to meet the threats America is confronting.

First, there is no logic to many of the program cuts the secretary is recommending. For example, he wants to end placement of ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska, at the same time he admits that the North Koreans are aggressively developing longer-range ballistic missiles that will be able to strike the United States. The ground-based interceptors in Alaska are the one part of the U.S. missile-defense system that virtually everyone agrees would be effective, and they are designed to defend against the one threat everyone agrees is growing. Secretary Gates also wants to end procurement of the stealthy F-22 fighter and instead buy more F-35 strike fighters. But the F-22 is designed to ensure air superiority against the growing number of sophisticated Russian-built MiG and Sukhoi aircraft, and against China’s advanced fighters. Strike and air-superiority fighters have different capabilities because they are designed for different missions. Buying a strike fighter in lieu of an air-superiority fighter is like buying artillery when the military needs tanks.

The secretary also wants to stop procuring the C-17 “Globemaster” — the Air Force’s most modern cargo aircraft. That makes no sense at all. As the United States gradually increases the size of the Army and Marine Corps while continuing to reduce forward basing of their troops, it becomes even more necessary to ensure adequate and reliable lift capability, so that the Pentagon can quickly move forces and equipment to where they are needed. Since the attacks of 9/11, the Pentagon has been flying the wings off our C-17 fleet; in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the C-17 is an effective means for moving troops and equipment, not just between theaters, but within theaters as well, without having to worry about improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, or the threat of increasingly effective insurgent attacks along the main supply routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Moreover, the secretary has made these program decisions before the department he leads has conducted a thorough review of its short- and long-term needs. Mr. Gates said that the decisions were the result of a “holistic assessment of capabilities, requirements, risks, and needs for the purpose of shifting this department in a different strategic direction.” But he admitted that the Pentagon has yet to conduct the Quadrennial Defense Review.

How, for example, does the secretary know that his department will need only 205 C-17 aircraft or that it can sustain an adequate American presence around the world with only ten aircraft carriers? And why should Congress — or the country — accept, without any thorough strategic analysis, his recommendations to terminate programs that his department and his military leaders have been advocating as necessary, not only for the last two years, when the Pentagon has been under his leadership, but for years before his appointment?

The secretary also made a point of saying that he wanted procurement reform. Fair enough. But the last three secretaries have said the same thing. The current procurement system, which Mr. Gates appropriately says is broken, is itself the result of 15 years of reform, going back to Secretary William Perry. Perhaps Secretary Gates will succeed where the last two administrations have failed. The one thing we do know is that abrupt shifts in direction — advocating programs one year and then canceling them the next; promising modernization and then cutting modernization budgets — create inconsistency and instability and make it impossible to use defense dollars efficiently.

The secretary also repeated a theme he has been sounding since last spring: that the Pentagon should focus on fighting terrorists rather than on deterring or defending against potential threats from rogue states or peer competitors like Russia and China. In fact, that is a misstatement of the department’s mission. It is the duty of our regional combatant commanders, such as General Petraeus, to prosecute current conflicts successfully. It is the task of the Joint Chiefs to prepare our forces for future ones.

Those future threats are real. For example, ever since the late 1990s, China has single-mindedly been acquiring the capabilities necessary to exclude the American Navy from the Taiwan Strait and the surrounding region. The acquisition and development of carrier-killer missiles, and the aggressive and sustained acquisition of advanced attack submarines and nuclear-missile submarines, are only the latest steps in this strategy, which included the opening of a nuclear-submarine base several years ago on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. The actions of China, coupled with the successful Russian invasion of Georgia last year, show that the United States is now facing two regional superpowers that are bent on pursuing national ambitions, if necessary by force, that conflict with America’s security needs and treaty obligations.

Even the Obama administration must understand that America’s military has to have the capability to deal with different kinds of threats at the same time; Russia, China, and Iran are not going to disappear just because the White House would rather not have to deal with them while also conducting its Afghanistan operations. The point that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made — that the U.S. must possess “full-spectrum capabilities” — effectively sums up the matter.

Finally, while the secretary denied that budgetary concerns were behind his decisions, he referred to the “limited tax dollars” the department will have available in the future. Here is a budgetary reality that Secretary Gates carefully did not mention: His department is facing a shortfall of at least $50 billion per year in the modernization funding that is absolutely necessary to maintain America’s military predominance. That shortfall has been confirmed time and again by authorities from the Congressional Budget Office to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. (For a history and explanation of the issue, see my cover story in National Review.) Yet the United States government has — between the TARP legislation, the stimulus package, and the fiscal-year 2009 and 2010 budgets passed over the last six months — added (at a conservative estimate) $3.5 trillion to the national debt in the short term and obligated the American people to trillions more in borrowing over the next ten years. For perhaps 5 percent of that, the Pentagon could have recapitalized America’s military inventory and sustained the technological superiority that allows the men and women in our military services to protect the United States with the smallest possible loss of life. Yet the public record is devoid of any suggestion that Secretary Gates fought for the needs of his department while the White House was spending the “limited tax dollars” of the American people on everything but the national defense.

It is crystal clear that the spectrum of risks facing the United States and our allies is real, growing, and by no means limited to the terrorist threat. Moreover, it is elementary military doctrine — Defense 101, if you will — that militaries must prepare for all contingencies at the same time. Secretary Gates knows all of this better than anyone else. As recently as last year he said that history had not ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that ethnic, religious, and regional rivalries that had been suppressed by the Cold War would thaw out with a vengeance. He was right. If Mr. Gates wants to restructure the presidential helicopter program or reform the Pentagon accounting system, he is welcome to try. But that will not validate his leadership or his vision. He can do that only by fighting for the increase in defense-modernization funding that alone can protect his country — and that the current president and Congress will not want to give him.

— Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He has served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993–2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002–2007). He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four years, chairman of the committee’s Seapower Subcommittee.