In an effort to head off potential budget cuts, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed some trimming of his own. Among the talking points are the elimination of “a major command”, the cutting of 50 flag officer slots, and the layoff of “thousands” of military and civilian workers.
It won’t work. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Gates’ cuts are window dressing which don’t even scratch the surface of the kind of dramatic rethinking and prioritization that is necessary to bring the defense budget into line with what is affordable. The “major command” he proposed to eliminate is the U.S. Special Operations Command, a vanity exercise for special-ops forces that functioned reasonably for decades as parts of each of the four services. Whatever its virtues as an independent unified command (and I think those were very few, if any), Special Operations Command is tiny and marginal and does not constitute a major cut.
The same goes for the elimination of a few flag officers. While it is certainly true that the U.S. military has far more generals and admirals that it has useful work for them, 50 slots is hardly a fundamental reorganization or reevaluation of defense priorities.
The talking point about “thousands” of eliminated jobs is particularly disingenuous. The normal way in which a military unit is eliminated involves the transfer and absorbsion of its work and its personnel into new units.
What is needed is precisely what Gates is trying to avoid — a fundamental reassessment of threats and capabilities with an eye towards finally moving out of the Cold War industrial-era military and toward a force designed (instead of hastily adapted ad hoc) to fight “war among the people”.
The U.S. role and U.S. interests in the world do require a substantial military force, but the job does not require a budget that has doubled in the last 10 years. After 9/11, the Pentagon (guided by government contractors, with their boards stuffed with former generals, admirals, and congressmen) adjusted to new threats not by redesigning the force, but by simply buying twice as much stuff. Much of the stuff they bought and the stuff they retained was irrelevant to the kind of warfare that appears likely to dominate for the next 100 years. The F-22, for example, is a fighter running $150 million a pop (plus lifetime maintenance costs) that is designed to combat an air superiority that that not only doesn’t exist, but isn’t even projected to exist for at least 10-20 years.
And Gates can’t convince me that he’s serious about budget cutting until he stops avoiding that reality.