By David Ignatius
Wednesday, January 26, 2011;
Last week we celebrated the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address, with its ringing call to "pay any price, bear any burden" for the nation's security. But a better guide to the choices we face today is President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, delivered three days earlier, and his call to restrain the "military-industrial complex."
Trimming the defense budget is one of the hardest tasks in Washington. Congress never met a weapons system it didn't like. But with the nation's debt problems, making sensible cuts has become essential. That's clear to Defense Secretary Bob Gates and the military leadership, as President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, even if Congress is still treating the Pentagon budget as a pork barrel.
Senior Pentagon officials recognize that new technologies make it possible to reshape the budget without putting the country at greater risk. But this transition will require an honest evaluation of the "legacy systems" - the squadrons of manned bombers and fighters; the fleets of aircraft carriers, cruisers and submarines - that are wrapped in red, white and blue.
The military loves these traditional instruments of American power, despite their immense cost. But as technologies change, they will gradually become as outmoded as a cannonball or a cavalry charge.
Defense analysts argue that the military needs to focus less on fancy platforms - its nuclear ships or supersonic jets. These systems will soon be vulnerable to attack from lasers and other directed-energy weapons. But more important, the platforms will matter less than what they carry. This is the age of "unmanned aerial vehicles" - and soon unmanned ships, subs and tanks, too. These simple, autonomous platforms will be cheaper and more robust but no less deadly to an adversary.
If the Obama administration seizes this opportunity and drives it through the inevitable congressional opposition, it can begin a real transformation of the defense budget. Technology should allow the United States to cut costs for traditional legacy systems as it prepares for the new threats that are ahead.
The new technologies that will drive these changes are detailed in a study called "Technology Horizons" that was prepared last year by Werner Dahm, who was then chief scientist of the Air Force. He urged research on "cyber resilience" and "electromagnetic spectrum warfare," including lasers and other beam weapons. And he stressed that unmanned systems, coordinated by advanced software, can give "operational advantages over adversaries who are limited to human planning and decision speeds."
Lasers are only a few years away from being practical weapons, Pentagon officials say. Ground-based lasers could revolutionize air defense, and a new generation of solid-state lasers may be small enough for airborne platforms. "Directed-energy systems will be among the key 'game-changing' technology-enabled capabilities," wrote Dahm.
Space will become, metaphorically, a vulnerable "low ground" in this new environment. Powerful ground-based lasers will be able to blind or disable satellites, so redundant forms of communication will be needed. So will alternatives to platforms that depend on space-based Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.
Though our "Buck Rogers" fantasies make us think of lasers primarily as offensive weapons, experts say they will be just as useful for surveillance - illuminating targets with pinpoint digital precision (when clouds aren't in the way). Researchers are developing laser-driven air-defense systems that can instantly detect and then strike incoming missiles. This is a technology revolution that, among other things, could actually make Israel safe from missile and rocket attack.
The hard part of this defense transformation will be giving up the grand old systems that for generations have symbolized U.S. military power. But that process of shedding the past is absolutely essential. If we try to keep all the old systems and add the new ones, our already overstretched budget will rip apart like a gunnysack. The Pentagon knows it can't have it all; hopefully, members of Congress (who love to bloviate about cutting the budget but hate cutting actual programs) will get the message, too.
President Obama has the right team in place to begin this strategic downsizing of the defense budget. Gates has been an outspoken advocate of cutting programs we can't afford, and he has strong backing from Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. James Cartwright, the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military brass knows the country won't be secure if it's broke.
In this season of budget politics, there can't be any sacred cows. Obama and his Pentagon advisers need to show the country that by changing how we spend money, it will be possible to cut our defense budget and stay safe.