Caspar Weinberger was known as ‘Cap the Knife’ because of his ability to hold down government spending before he became Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. Robert Gates may in the future leave the Pentagon with the moniker, ‘Bob the Belt-Tightener’ for his courage to champion responsible spending as Defense Secretary. And if Gates can successfully reallocate money to focus on military modernization priorities such as shipbuilding, he may well also be dubbed, ‘Bob the Builder.’
The Secretary’s speech will be viewed by different audiences through very different lenses. Those inside the Washington Beltway will tend to look at budget implications. Those abroad—allies, partners, and erstwhile foes alike—will examine its implications for their defenses. Some will worry about abandonment or, at a minimum, pressure to shoulder greater responsibly. Others may see it as a harbinger of American decline and deeper budget cuts yet to come, and thus an opportunity to assert more power in the years ahead. And still others may read it for what it mostly is: namely, a clear-eyed look at how to rebalance costs to preserve muscle and trim less urgent spending (though not necessarily fat).
No doubt Secretary Gates is concerned about America’s ballooning federal deficit. That deficit, if left unchecked, may by decade’s end consume more than 100 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Earlier this year the Secretary evocatively raised the specter of an out-of-control military-industrial complex, something that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against upon leaving the White House. “The gusher has been turned off,” the Secretary promised in May.
Nonetheless, his landmark speech on Monday was unabashedly not about balancing the federal budget or even cutting defense spending. Instead, it was aimed at salvaging America’s diminishing military force structure during an era of mounting security challenges. As he observed, the number of failed states, the military modernization programs of potential adversaries, and the breadth of challenges are hardly in retreat. The decades ahead look more hazardous, not less, to security planners.
The Quadrennial Defense Review released in February of this year discussed the need for making tough choices on spending but stopped short of linking its strategic assessment with a specific future force structure, except in broad brush strokes. Monday’s clarion call for new priorities was the next step in follow-through. The aim is to support the a U.S. defense strategy of “rebalanc(ing) the capabilities of America’s Armed Forces to prevail in today’s wars, while building the capabilities needed to deal with future threats.”
In other words, Gates is trying to not just articulate policy but to implement it as well, something we often forget about in Washington. He clearly wants Congress and the American people to know that he is willing to break existing iron rice bowls to ensure investment in the highest priorities.
His advocacy for closing the Joint Forces Command and trimming back contracting costs by a third are thus crucial steps for maintaining military modernization in the face of mounting threats. It is essential for the United States to invest in its muscle, even if means making sacrifices by retracting other parts of the organization.
The Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) has become a major employer in Virginia, and no one should be insensitive to job insecurity, especially in the current recession. Nonetheless, the Command—even under the venerable leadership of General James Mattis—never matched its initial promise to bring joint doctrine and joint force innovation and readiness to the U.S. Armed Forces. These requirements will once again have to be folded into other parts of the bureaucracy, whether that is the Joint Staff or Combatant Commands. If closing JFCOM can save enough money to halt the precipitous decline in American Naval power (and allow the Navy to head back up at least in the direction of the 313 ships judged to be needed to keep pace, for instance, with a rising China’s anti-access strategy and increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea), then it will have been a laudable tradeoff indeed.
Having written earlier this year on the need for ‘restraint’ to help bring growing U.S. commitments in line with our constricted means, I want to emphasize that it was never my intention to detract from American leadership. Instead, I simply want to help continuously underscore the economic foundations of our security and highlight the need for other allies and partners to contribute to the global collective good of security, broadly defined.
In the short term, the United States is likely to continue to seek to do more with less. But unless we find a way to invest in our people, our infrastructure, our innovation, our education, and our attractiveness as an economic and political model, all while using our hard power softly, we will have no alternative but to do less with less.
Secretary Gates has done about as much as one member of Cabinet can do to help steer the world’s largest defense budget in a more sustainable direction for protecting American interests. In doing so he has eschewed financial trickery for common sense. Common sense is worth a great deal in a century when information floods our lives. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, common sense is really “genius dressed in working clothes.” Those clothes are worn by Robert Gates.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the recent CNAS report, “Restraint: Recalibrating American Strategy.”