Military Reform Redux
The announcement last week by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that he was proposing major reforms in the military procurement system and that he intends to cancel some of the military’s most cherished new weapons systems has created at least a bit of buzz, including two articles (one by John Barry and Evan Thomas and one by Fareed Zakaria) in this week’s Newsweek. But is this news, or just another ritual act in the ongoing drama within the Pentagon over who controls what the services buy to fight with and how they organize themselves to fight?
A SECDEF deciding he wants to climb upon and surmount the procurement process is certainly nothing new. The first SECDEF, retire Admiral James Forrestal, tried it in 1948 at the famous Key West conference on military leaders, where those leaders decided to divvy up military task about the way they alfready were divided and to keep doing things pretty much as thet always have. SECDEFs since have tried the same thing with about equal success, and Gates’ predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld made it a major priority before he got caught up in fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the end, passive resistance within the military prevailed until Rumsfeld was gone. Enter Gates.
Robert Gates has a consistent history of believing in the need to gain control of military procurement, based on two basic premises. The first is that the procurement system, which specializes in the development and purchase of large, expensive, sophisticated weapons systems, is prone to developing a force that is inapplicable to the kind of asymmetrical, small conflicts in which the United States is likely to be involved: the U.S. has bought 135 F-22 fighter jets (which television commercials assure us will assure American air combat superiority for the next 40 years), but, as Zakaria points out, none have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Why not? Well, the fact that neither enemy has an air force to engage these marvelous air-to-air fighting machines (a trait shared by essentially all the United States’ likely competitors) has something to do with it. The air force is also concerned that some guerrilla fighter might get lucky and shoot one of these very expensive birds down. Main battle tanks, to cite another example, do not do well in mountainous terrain lacking decent roads and bridges that can withstand their weight, and the U.S. blue water navy is designed for more sophisticated tasks than warding off Somali pirates.
The other source of concern is that military procurement represents, at its worst, a pork barrel cesspool that makes the more publicized wastes of the public’s money absolutely pale by comparison. The cost overrun (systems coming in at considerably higher costs than they wree projected to cost) is a Pentagon way of life, as is the pursuit of weapons systems that wither do not work at all, work marginally, or work acceptably only after undergoing such expensive modifications as to leave the price tag astronomically greater than it began. Take efforts at developing a viable missile defense (after a half-century of concerted activity, we still do not have one that works) as a prime example. Pork barrel expenditures of around $8 billion attached to the current budget have created political apoplexy; the number for equivalent military waste is in the hundreds of billions of dollars!
Yet, Secretary Gates joins a long list of predecessors in what has proven to be a quixotic quest. He proposes to cancel the Air Force’s F-22 program on the quite reasonable basis that there is no current or reasonably projectible opponent for F-22s to shoot down (the United States has not engaged in meaningful air-to-air combat since Korea!), the Army’s collection of Future Combat Systems (which would work best against a Red Army that no longer exists or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, against whom war is highly unlikely), and the Navy’s futuristic DDG 1000 destroyer (on the basis that the United States has the only real blue water navy in the world).
Yet, the quest will almost certainly be at least partly unsuccessful. It will be resisted on two basic grounds, one highly public, the other not so much so. Publicly, the services and their supporters will attack reform on national security grounds, arguing that the failure to keep substantially ahead of the rest of the world in weaponry could place Americans in jeopardy that could be avoided by building the items on the military “wish lists.” If, for instance, the Air Force is not allowed to build the F-22 and some future enemy comes up with a fighter superior to our pre-F-22 combat systems, American citizens could be placed at risk. This is essentially a scare tactic that ignores the fact that we would know potential adversaries were doing something like that in adequate time to gin up a competitor or, for the matter, revive the F-22.
The less publicized objection is political. Military procurement is big business: for FY 2007, for instance, procurement costs for the United States were over $300 billion, and the spending occurred in a large number of locales for a variet of purposes. The practical result is that virtually every member of Congress has some stake in military procurement, because in all likelihood, his or her constituency benefits from it. This is nothing to say of corporate incomes, profits, and consequent lobbying efforts and other economic impacts that create an enormous support base for continuing to “feed the beast.” It is a formidable array of forces on the side of the status quo, and one reformers to date have been unsuccessful in overcoming. Gates is only the most recent warrior to sit astride his noble stead, lance in hand, to confront the monster.
Presumably this is something of a crusade for Gates and one, if it succeeds, will have an enormously strong impact on the military equation. Although no one has said so publicly, it seems likely that permission to attack the procurement problem was the promise that Gates exacted frrom President Obama that convinced him to stay on for the transition. One can only wish him well. But one should also probably not hold one’s breath that he will succeed.