Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates vs. the Military Industrial Complex

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

THE OBAMA administration was already being accused of overloading Congress with ambitious and politically taxing initiatives when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates unveiled his sweeping reform of military spending on Monday. The Pentagon chief proposes to slaughter a veritable herd of sacred cows in weapons procurement: the F-22 fighter and C-17 cargo planes, the Navy's stealth destroyer, the Army's futuristic combat vehicle, several pieces of the Bush administration's cherished missile defense -- even the new presidential helicopter fleet. He plans a major bureaucratic reform that would eliminate thousands of private contracting jobs, including many in the Washington area.

The result will almost certainly be a pitched battle with defense contractors and their clients in Congress, who include as many Democrats as Republicans. Mr. Gates took the unusual step of laying out his reforms as proposals to President Obama, which may deflect some of the heat from the White House. Mr. Obama ought to back his veteran and straight-shooting defense chief. Most of what Mr. Gates proposes is sensible, long overdue -- and necessary to prevent military spending from spinning out of control.

For years Congress and the Pentagon have known that the armed services were developing and buying too many weapon systems of too little relevance to the wars the country is fighting or is likely to fight. Thanks to the skill of defense companies in distributing jobs and campaign contributions through many congressional districts, the problem has been ignored. Even when the Pentagon has tried to stop buying hardware -- such as the C-17 cargo plane -- it has been overridden by pork-barrel politics; the C-17 sustains suppliers in 40 states.

Mr. Gates, who took office at the end of 2006, also sidestepped the problem at first. Then he became frustrated by the difficulty obtaining the vehicles and weapons that his commanders needed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- such as Predator drones and mine-resistant vehicles. His budget request would shift resources to these priorities, along with the necessary expansion of the Army and Marine Corps, while ending or canceling the production of weapons that have proved unworkable or unnecessary.

The wisdom of many of the proposals is almost self-evident. High-tech F-22 fighters cost $150 million each and have never been used in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the Air Force has 187 in hand or on order; the Joint Strike Fighter Mr. Gates favors is cheaper. Studies have shown that the DDG 1000 destroyer is vulnerable to missiles. The airborne laser and multiple kill vehicle are exotic pieces of missile defense unlikely to be workable in the near future; Mr. Gates rightly proposes to concentrate resources on theater missile defense and on improving existing systems.

Inevitably Congress will override some of the cuts; workers on the main C-17 production line in California probably have little to fear. But Democrats who say they support the president's expensive health-care and education programs -- and Republicans who say they want to get spending under control -- can demonstrate some responsibility by supporting the bulk of these reforms. "My hope is that . . . members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole," Mr. Gates said. That shouldn't be wishful thinking.

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