Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent a clear signal to Democrats who might be eager to make cuts to the Defense Department's budget: if you cut us below current levels you will "have to sacrifice force structure. We cannot do it any other way."
Making such cuts will mean that the United States will suffer from "a reduction in military capability and a reduction in our flexibility."
Gates was replying to a question from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who cited the Obama administration’s domestic spending freeze, adding that the U.S. "may need to trim defense budgets as well."
But Gates cautioned against that kind of thinking. "The situation out there in the world doesn't change and the world is getting more dangerous rather than less so," he told Udall. "The Defense Department certainly spends a lot of money but if you look at where the Defense Department is today it certainly is within historical norms." Including funding for the two wars, the Defense Department consumers 4.7 percent of gross national product, which "represents a significantly smaller portion of national wealth going to defense than was spent during America's pervious major wars," Gates said.
But some Democrats did not back off., Sen. Jim Webb, former Secretary of the Navy, said he did "not believe that the DoD budget should be sacrosanct" and he hit out at funding that goes to officers working at think tanks such as the Center for a New American Security. Webb, who doubtless offended at least half-a-dozen incipient Democratic defense office holders, said he did not believe think tanks provided any value to the defense game.
Webb also criticized the so-called mentor program, which allows retired general officers -- many of whom work for defense companies -- to serve as Pentagon consultants and receive up to $2,600 a day for their work. Webb was joined in his criticism of this program by several senators, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
The debate about the Joint Strike Fighter's second engine, the F136, is already front and center, with several Democrats lining up with the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. John McCain urged Gates to threaten to veto the defense authorization bill loudly and often since his efforts were likely to "fall on deaf ears up here."
Gates offered a detailed justification for killing the F136, saying the engine would cost an additional $2.5 billion over the next five years and would not save much, if any, money. On top of that, "the alternate engine program is three to four years behind in development compared to the current program, and there is no guarantee that a second program would not face the same challenges as the current effort," Gates said in his prepared statement. The secretary repeated his threat to recommend a veto over the program, but it did not have the deep, booming sound of a death knell. It sounded more like the call to prayer. After all, Gates knows he faces broad and entrenched support for the F136 and he does not want to alienate F136 supporters like Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the committee.
Gates also disclosed that the Future years Defense Plan contains $1.7 billion for the next-generation bomber and long range strike. He made clear the department is still quite a ways from making any final decisions. "Do we want a stand-off bomber, an attack bomber, a manned or unmanned bomber, or do we want variations?" he asked. He noted that U.S B-52 fleet still "has a lot of life left" and, when you get right down to it, "we are talking about a bomber that would not appear in the force until the late 20s..."
Finally, best line of the day goes to Gates. He was asked about Northrop Grumman's personnel tracking system called DIMHRS (Defense Integrated Military Human Resources System). He was asked by Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois why the program was sacked.
"I would say that what we have got for half a billion dollars is an unpronounceable acronym," Gates told Burris. Mullen was simply blunt: "The program was a disaster."