CHICAGO -- Defense spending and program priorities cannot be divorced from the very real threats of today and the growing ones of tomorrow, the defense secretary told hundreds of members of the Economics Club of Chicago here today.
“We stand at a crossroads,” Robert M. Gates said. “It is time to draw the line and take a stand against the business-as-usual approach to national defense.
“We must all fulfill our obligation to the American people to ensure that the United States remains safe and strong,” he said.
The proposed $534 billion Fiscal Year 2010 defense budget is the first true 21st Century defense budget and reflects the fundamental shift in the nature of the conflicts the nation faces, Gates said. Other nations have learned from others’ encounters with the United States that it is ill-advised to fight a conventional warf head-to-head with the United States.
“Instead, they are developing asymmetric means that take advantage of new technologies – and our vulnerabilities – to disrupt our lines of communication and our freedom of movement, to deny us access, and to narrow our military options and strategic choices,” Gate said. “In sum, the security challenges we now face, and will in the future, have changed, and our thinking must likewise change.
“The old paradigm of looking at potential conflict as either regular or irregular war, conventional or unconventional, high end or low end – is no longer relevant,” he added.
As a result, Defense Department leaders need to think about and prepare for war in a profoundly different way than what it has been typical throughout the better part of the last century, he said.
To this end, the president’s budget request cut, curtailed, or ended a number of conventional modernization programs, including satellites, ground vehicles, helicopters, and fighters that were either performing poorly or in excess to real-world needs. Conversely, future-oriented programs where the United States was relatively underinvested were accelerated or received more funding.
For example, Gates described a little-noticed initiative in the budget that includes money to begin a new generation of ballistic missile submarines. It also allows for nearly $700 million in additional funds to secure and assure America’s nuclear deterrent.
“In truth, preparing for conflict in the 21st Century means investing in truly new concepts and new technologies,” Gate said. “It means taking into account all the assets and capabilities we can bring to the fight. It means measuring those capabilities against the real threats posed by real-world adversaries.”
One of the programs the budget would cap is the F-22 fighter jet program. While “a niche silver-bullet solution for one or two potential scenarios,” the fighter is expensive and has limited capabilities when compared to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The F-35 is 10- to 15 years newer, less than half the cost, carries a much larger suite of weapons and is technologically superior in several areas. About 500 will be purchased over the next five years and more than 2,400 over the life of the program, Gates said. By contrast, he recommended to the president that the F-22s already allowed for were sufficient.
“The grim reality is that with regard to the budget we have entered a zero-sum game,” Gates said. “Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity ... is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter political adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable.
“That is a risk that I cannot accept and one that I will not take,” he said. “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by a few more ships and planes.”
When inflation and the fact that some war costs were moved from the supplemental appropriations to the main defense budget, the current proposed $534 billion budget is a modest increase over the last proposed defense budget of $524 billion, Gates said.
By one estimate, the U.S. defense budget adds up to about what the entire rest of the world combined, friend or foe, spends on defense. “Only in the parallel universe that is Washington, D.C., would that be considered ‘gutting’ defense,” Gates said.
Some in Congress have called for yet more analysis before making any of the decisions in this budget, he added. But when dealing with programs that were clearly out of control, performing poorly, and [in] excess to the military’s real requirements, military leaders didn’t need more study, more debate or more delay, he said.
“What was needed were three things – common sense, political will, and tough decisions,” Gates said.
Those three qualities would lead to decisions that provide the country with a portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest spectrum of conflict.
Exactly what’s needed in today’s high-stakes security world where the country is at war, and the security landscape is growing steadily more dangerous and unpredictable, he said.
“I am deeply concerned about the long-term challenges facing our defense establishment and just as concerned that the political state of play does not reflect the reality that major reforms are needed, or that tough choices are necessary,” Gates concluded.
The secretary’s address to the Economic Club of Chicago concluded the first of a two-day trip, which started with a visit to Fort Drum, N.Y., where he held a town hall meeting with about 200 troops. Tomorrow, he’ll speak at a recruit graduation at Naval Station Great Lakes before returning to Washington to bid farewell to Army Secretary Pete Geren who is leaving his post after two years.
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