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Gates: We must think before we cut

Secretary Gates repeated his warning on Wednesday that the worst way for Washington to cut the defense budget is to pick a number or percentage first and reduce spending across the board. Doing so could "hollow the force," Gates warned, and he cited the steep drop-offs in spending of the 1970s and 1990s as what Washington must avoid in Austerity America.

Instead, Gates said he wants Congress, the White House and the public to think through what they want the Pentagon to do -- and not to do -- and then redraw budgets accordingly. He acknowledged that this could still have big consequences for the United States and the military-industrial complex: If DoD gave up the notion that it must be able to fight two wars simultaneously, for example, that could have an effect all down the line on spending and force structure, including on big programs such as the F-35. The bottom line, Gates said, is that Washington can reshape its defense structure however it wants, but it must begin with a goal in mind, not just start hacking away.

"I want to force people to have that discussion," Gates said, which is what he hopes to accomplish with the forthcoming Mother of All Reviews.

There are some things, however, the Pentagon absolutely has to buy, he said: The Air Force's new KC-46A tanker; the F-35; the Navy's new ballistic missile submarine, known as SSBN(X). The Army must reset after Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, as must the Marines. DoD needs all that stuff to keep its ability to take basic missions, irrespective of the other potential changes that might come out of the mega-review.

But Gates has one foot out the Pentagon door. His successor, Leon Panetta, has yet to weigh in on what he thinks about all of this, and there are 535 other important voices in Washington that are going to chime in when the time comes to decide what Pentagon should and shouldn't do.

UPDATE: So when is this mega-review going to be done? Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says there's no fixed date, but that it probably won't be finished in time to impact the 2012 budget. The outcome of the review "will be felt in the '13 proposals," he said.

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