Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who cut major weapons programs during 4½ years at the Pentagon, is warning against “hollowing out” the U.S. military through unwise spending cuts planned by the Obama administration.
“I am determined that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where budget targets were met mostly by taking a percentage off the top,” Mr. Gates said in a speech to a conservative think tank Tuesday.
“That kind of salami-slicing approach preserves overhead and maintains force structure on paper, but results in a hollowing out of the force from a lack of proper training, maintenance and equipment - and manpower.”
A similar slashing of defense spending in the 1970s was “a disastrous period for our military and, to a lesser extent, during the late 1990s,” Mr. Gates told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute.
He said improperly cutting force size also could produce a “hollowing effect” that would limit the military’s global reach, noting “a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”
The United States, Mr. Gates said, has “a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet.” Quoting Winston Churchill, he said the price of greatness is responsibility - and the people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.
Defense spending and force cuts are expected as the military struggles to re-equip and modernize forces weakened by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while facing new and evolving threats at a time of mounting federal debt and austerity, Mr. Gates said.
President Obama announced April 13 that, as part of the administration’s effort to reduce the federal deficit, national security spending would be cut by $400 billion over 12 years. Most of the cuts will come from the Pentagon, which has an annual defense budget of about $530 billion, Mr. Gates said.
The defense chief said the president’s plan and another deficit-cutting plan that would trim defense spending by $1.3 trillion have triggered debate on “the size, use and cost” of military forces and “the appropriate role of the United States in the world.”
The reality is that “absent a catastrophic international conflict or a new existential threat, we are not likely to return to Cold War levels of defense expenditures, at least as a share of national wealth, anytime soon,” Mr. Gates said.
As defense secretary, Mr. Gates shifted U.S. military weapons development toward fighting counterinsurgency warfare, based on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his speech, he said his priority was to meet “urgent battlefield needs,” including medical care and equipment, armored vehicles and increased spying, including more drone aircraft.
Critics have dubbed Mr. Gates‘ defense strategy as a focus on preparing to fight “Gen. Custer-type conflicts,” after the ill-fated Indian fighter of the 19th century, while not preparing enough for potential, large-scale conventional wars against states like China, a resurgent Russia and Iran.
Over the past two years, Mr. Gates capped, canceled or ended more than 30 defense programs, including the Air Force F-22 fighter and the Army’s Future Combat System of manned and unmanned vehicles. An airborne anti-missile laser also was killed.
The defense secretary said vital programs that must be built are a new aerial refueling tanker fleet and some 2,000 F-35 fighters, which are behind schedule and over budget. Other urgent arms programs include long-range strike weapons, modernized nuclear weapons, warships, a new missile submarine class, cyberwarfare, intelligence systems and ground forces.
“So as we move forward, unless our country’s political leadership envisions a dramatically diminished global security role for the United States, it is vitally important to protect the military modernization accounts,” he said.
Mr. Gates, defense secretary since December 2006, is scheduled to leave office at the end of June. His comments Tuesday marked the third time in the past week that he has spoken out about concerns that the White House will launch harsh military spending cuts.
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta has been nominated to be the next defense secretary. He was White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, when Republicans charged that its defense policies were leading to a hollowed-out force.
The Pentagon also is debating whether to begin programs designed to better prepare for dealing with the growing military threat from China. Some officials oppose a major restructuring, while many in the military say new weapons are needed urgently to prepare to counter any hostility from China.
In a separate development, the White House on Tuesday threatened to veto a pending defense authorization bill over a provision that would limit the president’s authority to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The White House said it opposes language in the bill that would prohibit dismantling nuclear weapons under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty until the administration reports to Congress its plans for nuclear arms modernization.
The White House also opposes provisions in the bill that would revive plans for an alternate engine for the F-35 and that would limit transfers to foreign countries of detainees at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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