Making necessary changes in the defense budget

More important than the weapons systems he might cut or modify in his new military budget is Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ determination to reform the Pentagon’s woefully expensive and inefficient procurement process.

The urgency of this was underscored by a Government Accountability Office report that said 96 of the Defense Department’s biggest weapons systems were over budget by $296 billion — which is well over half the $534 billion Gates is proposing for the entire department for all of 2010.

In announcing his determination to reform how the military buys weapons, Gates said, "The perennial procurement and contracting cycle, going back many decades, of adding layer and layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build, must come to an end."

This is a more polite way of expressing the old Pentagon observation that if the procurement process ran its natural course, the military services would only be able to afford one of each weapon.

Gates’ proposition is that we should be designing and buying the weapons for the wars we’re actually fighting or are likely to fight and not for a hypothetical war against an enemy with unlimited time and resources.

He might have been speaking of the advanced fighter jet F-22 when he said, "It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to over-ensure against a remote or diminishing risk — or in effect to run up the score in a capability where the United States is already dominant — is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset the force, win the wars we are in and improve capabilities in areas where we are underinvested and potentially vulnerable."

Some defense systems exist, not because they meet any true military need, but because members of Congress, the defense industries and members of the military are heavily invested in their continued existence.

Gates’ epiphany about weapons acquisition came when he had to go outside the regular procurement process and override institutional objections to speed delivery of MRAPs to Iraq. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles are trucks especially designed to resist the buried and roadside explosives that are the insurgents’ weapon of choice. The troops were clamoring for the MRAPs, which dramatically reduce casualties but until Gates intervened the procurement process seemed unable to deliver them.

He pledges to "separate appetites from real requirements." More power to him.