Secretary Gates has tried to battle his reputation as the Great Destroyer of Pentagon programs -- the man who shot down the F-22, sank DDG 1000 and blew the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle out of the water. (Among others.) Now, though, as his time in DoD grows ever shorter, he appears poised to become the Great Defender -- the man who needs to keep the scythe from hitting the F-35, the Ground Combat Vehicle, and the next-generation bomber. (Among others.) Gates said Thursday the worst thing that could happen would be for everyone in the Building to endure an equal slice -- a "haircut," of a certain percentage. So that means the Mother of All Reviews must make tough strategic decisions, and that means a new round of winners and losers.
Gates said he's still figuring out how this whole review exercise is going to go; he's only had one meeting about it so far. One thing he said he does know is that it must be clear about the sacrifices involved with certain kinds of cuts: If we have fewer of these, we can't do this; if we agree we don't do this mission anymore, we won't need to buy these. Even still, it's not that simple, Gates said. DoD can't control the cost of fuel and other big expenditures into the future, and it has some things it must buy: The tanker, new surface ships for the Navy as its 1980s-era fleet gets old, and a modernized nuclear triad.
Gates didn't say the F-35, although we know he considers it a top priority. But by failing to lay down a chip for the jets at this early stage, he may have consciously or unconsciously put them in play. And here we turn to another data point: Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal reports that Vice Adm. Dave Venlet, the man who runs the F-35 program, said Thursday that he does not feel at all exempt from this forthcoming budget drill. "No Pentagon weapons project should 'feel it’s insulated or it’s above being looked at,'" Hodge writes.
So all we know is that DoD's biggest weapons program won't be held harmless as part of this big review -- not an earth-shattering revelation, perhaps, but still significant. It could mean that even as the program starts to get momentum, with ever-more test flights and hours in the air, the budget man still could throw everything for a loop.
What do you think? Should cuts to the F-35 program be a part of this big review, or should its high importance earn it a pass?