Driven by stark fiscal realities, the lessons of two long wars and with the backing of his president, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has issued a clarion call for an end to the Cold War forces that still shape the U.S. military. In a speech at the Eisenhower Library, complete with references to Ike's warnings about the growing power of both the military and the industrial bureaucracies, Gates also issued a parallel call for a reduction to the hip-deep bureaucracy through which he and other leaders must wade to get things done.
Gates noted that Eisenhower made the difficult choice not to use U.S. power, then near its zenith, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Instead he made strategic choices to preserve America's global influence. "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," Gates said in a clear reference to his earlier declarations that the U.S. is unlikely to engage in wars of choice in the future. Translation: we won't do anything like Bush's Iraq invasion as long as Gates has anything to do about it. And even when America was virtually awash in cash and boasted the world's most vibrant economy, choices had to be made.
"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 in his Saturday speech.
Today, choices must be made because "the proverbial wall has been brought to our back," Gates argued. But this is not a new position for the secretary. His first major push became public last April 6 last year, when he announced program cuts and restructures, leading to the end of the F-22 and most of the Future Combat System programs, among others. The decline in the number of new program starts for the foreseeable future has raised concerns about the American defense industrial base and the long-term ability of the country to project forces globally.
Rumors keep swirling that Gates is building a second portfolio of cuts, similar in scope to those he made April 6, to help him in his battles with Congress, which are likely to be fierce. In his Saturday speech, he took on the general officer corps, the civilian bureaucracy. "During the 1990s, the military saw deep cuts in overall force structure – the Army by nearly 40 percent. But the reduction in flag officers – generals and admirals – was about half that. The Department’s management layers – civilian and military – and numbers of senior executives outside the services grew during that same period," he said. "Almost a decade ago, Secretary Rumsfeld lamented that there were 17 levels of staff between him and a line officer. The Defense Business Board recently estimated that in some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers."
Cutting commands has historically been an extremely parlous exercise. Members of Congress want commands in their district to have the highest ranks possible for reasons of both prestige and jobs. Four star officers hate to cut command positions because it is the most direct form of reward they can offer their peers and cutting a command will usually mean the end of a career for a general officer.
"The Defense Department must take a hard look at every aspect of how it is organized, staffed, and operated – indeed, every aspect of how it does business. 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 said.
To force such change, Gates is acting from the top -- the only way it will get done and Gates' preferred method of operation: "I am directing the military services, the joint staff, the major functional and regional commands, and the civilian side of the Pentagon to take a hard, unsparing look at how they operate – in substance and style alike. The goal is to cut our overhead costs and to transfer those savings to force structure and modernization within the programmed budget. In other words, to convert sufficient 'tail' to 'tooth' to provide the equivalent of the roughly two to three percent real growth – resources needed to sustain our combat power at a time of war and make investments to prepare for an uncertain future."
For the acquisition community, Gates also pressed a case that may lead to the longest long-term shift in the U.S. military's weapons. He said the services "must change" how they build requirements. "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?"
Congress will strike back, be assured, and Gates may already be backpedaling from his tough speech last week to the Navy League, when he appeared to question the need for the current carrier force and the future submarine force. Talking with reporters on Friday, Gates claimed -- even though he took his job at the end of the Bush administration and then stayed under Obama -- that he might want to change things but he is "not crazy. I’m not going to cut a carrier, OK." Instead, he said that “people ought to start thinking about how they’re going to use carriers in a time when you have highly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles that can take out a carrier that costs between 10 and 15 billion dollars and has 6,000 lives on it.”
Gates told his audience that America needs no more studies, nor legislation to achieve the changes he seeks: "It is not a great mystery what needs to change. What it takes 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."
Watch our coverage later today and through the weeks to come for the views of those powerful people who are displeased. The emails started arriving over the weekend.