No one questions the contributions to national security of Defense Secretary Robert Gates or his skill at getting his way within the Department of Defense and with Congress. Gates is intelligent, strong-willed and well-schooled in the ways of Washington. Early in his tenure, he put those talents to good use in implementing the “surge” and re-establishing confidence in our Iraq policy. Since then, Gates has concentrated on Afghanistan, and to good effect. Though President Barack Obama made a huge mistake in imposing a timetable there, his decisions probably would have been worse without the influence of his defense secretary.
Yet there is real concern in Washington over Gates’ leadership on other issues. It is understandable that he focused his efforts on Afghanistan and Iraq; defense secretaries have to pay attention to the wolf closest to the sled. But Gates is running the Pentagon at a time when other risks facing the United States have been growing and American power relative to those risks has been declining. A review of Gates’ record on issues other than Afghanistan and Iraq shows he has made some key mistakes that have worsened the trend. But he still has time before he leaves the Pentagon sometime next year to set the stage for a renewal of American power and a subsequent increase in the margin of safety for the United States.
For two years, Gates has warned that a “resource-constrained environment” requires “hard choices.” On that basis, he has cancelled or sought to cancel dozens of major defense programs, including the F-22 fifth-generation fighter, the C-17 cargo aircraft, the VH-71 helicopter, the Air Force’s combat search and rescue helicopter, and Army combat vehicles. Yet in early 2009, Congress passed a whopping $787 billion “stimulus” bill that contained not a dime to modernize and buy equipment for the military. The record is devoid of evidence that Gates fought for the needs of the military as Congress considered the bill.
Appropriately, Gates has been vocal about his goal to reduce wasteful spending to save money for needed programs. But after nearly four years as defense secretary, he has failed to make progress in solving the Pentagon’s major management issues. Growing military health care costs continue to eat up money desperately needed for modernization; Gates has made little effort and had no success at controlling those expenses. He complains about the spiraling cost of shipbuilding but has yet to find a solution.
Gates has failed to stand up for missile defense. With his approval, the administration reduced the overall budget for the missile shield last year by $1.6 billion, or 15 percent.
There is a reason North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and Iran is seeking to do so. Nuclear weapons empower rogue regimes to use aggressive tactics in accomplishing their regional ambitions. That leads to ongoing conflict and the prospect of escalation into major confrontations. A fully deployed missile shield would neuter that threat and reduce the danger that the nuclear cascade will spread to other countries.
America’s secretary of defense has two main jobs. As a senior official in the chain of command, the defense secretary supports military commanders in executing the missions of the nation. Equally important, he must plan and shape the force of the future. And since it takes a long time to develop and deploy new equipment, the Pentagon’s planning horizon is 20 years down the road.
Gates conflates the two responsibilities, to the detriment in particular of our naval and air services. He often refers to the need to “rebalance the force” to better fight the wars of today. If he means only that the services should use current assets to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the statement is unremarkable.
But that isn’t all Gates means. He uses the current counterinsurgency missions as an excuse for not sustaining programs that are necessary to ensure the United States will be able to contain Russia, Iran and especially the growing power of China.
One example is Gates’ treatment of the Navy. Its size cut in half since the Reagan years, the Navy at 288 ships is smaller today than at any time since 1916. And it is still shrinking.
The Chinese, however, aren’t shrinking their navy. Within about five years, their fleet of modern submarines will nearly equal ours. China also is building its first aircraft carrier and has announced plans to build a new class of destroyers. These are two clear signals China seeks the ability not only to hold the U.S. Navy at bay in the Western Pacific, but to project power around the world.
Jim Talent, who represented Missouri in both the House and Senate, was chairman of the Seapower Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee for four years.