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Gates' defense spending dilemma

Pedants and word types like to remind us that "dilemma" is supposed to mean a choice between two unappealing alternatives, and that is certainly what Secretary Gates laid out on Tuesday in what the Pentagon billed as his "last major policy speech:"

"I’ve said repeatedly that I’d rather have a smaller, superbly capable military then a larger, hollow, less capable one," Gates said. "However, we need to be honest with the president, with the congress, with the American people, indeed with ourselves, about what those consequences are:  That a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things."

But "dilemma" may not be strong enough for the problems that Gates outlined. He told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute that the "low-hanging fruit" of defense cuts -- poorly performing programs, waste, fraud, abuse, etc. -- "have not only been plucked, they have been stomped on and crushed." The inevitable future cuts will necessarily require real sacrifice, he said, and he raised the stakes even higher by detailing how DoD's forthcoming mega-review will cross into some very sensitive areas:

Part of this analysis will entail going places that have been avoided by politicians in the past.  Taking on some of these issues could entail:

• Re-examining military compensation levels in light of the fact that – apart from the U.S. Army during the worst years of Iraq – all the services have consistently exceeded their recruiting and retention goals;

• It could mean taking a look at the rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to retirement, pay and pensions left over from the last century.   A more tiered and targeted system – one that weights compensation towards the most high demand and dangerous specialties – could bring down costs while attracting and retaining the high quality personnel we need;  and

• It will require doing something about spiraling health care costs – and in particular the health insurance benefit for working age retirees whose fees are one-tenth those of federal civil servants, and have not been raised since 1995.

Did you copy that? Gates is saying the review could recommend that Congress clamp down on pay, benefits, health care and other personnel costs -- a recommendation that lawmakers will not be eager to follow. Could Austerity America get to the point where Congress must give the troops a smaller pay increase every year, or none? Or a pay cut? It's possible, but hard to imagine. What politician would ever want to try to run against a challenger who could say, "that cheapskate snatched money from the pockets of our military heroes!"

Although Gates and other top defense voices keep warning against an across the board spending cut (the "peanut butter approach") his speech demonstrates how difficult it will be for Washington to decide what to keep and sacrifice -- and how appealing it might be, for a politician, just to pick a number and cut everything at once.

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