It is perhaps no accident that Defense secretary Robert Gates announced plans to drastically reshape the defense budget while President Obama was out of the country. His plans to kill or curtail several costly weapons systems have set off a furor among their constituencies in Congress.
But Gates has a point: Our arsenal is geared to fighting a conventional war of supersonic fighters and large naval fleets against Russia or China — a prospect that has grown remote over time — while our actual adversaries fight with shoulder weapons, car bombs and explosives buried in the road.
Gates would end at 187 planes in 2011 the production of the F-22 Raptor, a fighter designed to achieve Cold War dominance that is beloved by the Georgia congressional delegation. The F-22 has not seen action in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and Gates would buy 50 new missile-carrying Predator drones that have been used almost daily in those theaters.
The workhorse fighter would become the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has multiple configurations and would be flown by the Air Force, Navy, Marines and the British military. The plans are to eventually buy 2,443.
Also taking a hit is the Army’s $159 billion Future Combat System, a complex network that links advanced fighting vehicles, surveillance aircraft, robots and battlefield sensors. Gates would cancel $87 billion in the program that would develop a new generation of heavy tanks and armored vehicles.
He would spend $11 billion to increase the Army by 65,000 and the Marines by 27,000.
Gates also killed $13 billion for new presidential helicopters, a program that had grown steadily from its original $6.1 billion estimates. This only postpones the problem of replacing them because the current fleet is aging.
The money from most of the programs being cut will be redirected and it doesn’t appear that there will be any overall savings. The Pentagon budget is still expected to increase from its current $513 billion to $534 billion in fiscal 2010.
Gates will have a real fight on his hands. These costly defense programs are backed by the so-called iron triangle of military program officers, members of Congress with defense plants in their districts, and the huge defense industry itself. Already there is alarmist talk about the number of jobs that will be lost in the midst of a recession.
Gates said he hoped that "members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole." The Defense secretary is being optimistic. He has picked a fight that his opponents on these issues are not used to losing.