- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Defense budget released Monday by the Pentagon confirms the image of America as a declining power. In an administration that is spending record amounts of money on just about everything, it is dangerous to force the military to have to choose between today's resource demands and preparing for tomorrow's threats.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' 2010 defense budget proposal is markedly out of step with the times. Coming in at $534 billion, it represents a mere 4 percent increase over the previous year, which is an inflation-adjusted flatline, and slightly below 4 percent of gross domestic product. An additional $130 billion to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be requested in a later supplemental, which is down from $136 billion in the last cycle. Other than a deep-seated lack of appreciation for the country's defense needs, there is no explanation for why the Defense Department is required to be parsimonious when the rest of the government is swimming in money.

Belt-tightening at the Pentagon is best seen in context with the $787 billion stimulus bill, an off-budget exercise in congressional profligacy, and the $3 trillion and counting in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds. Given these vast sums, it is inexplicable that Mr. Gates is objecting to spending $143 million for each new F-22 fighter plane.

For an administration that preaches that Federal spending is the way out of the current economic crisis, the Gates budget proposal is slightly schizophrenic. Shifting defense priorities away from big-budget weapons systems will translate into immediate job losses in highly skilled sectors. Perhaps the unemployed technicians and executives can get some of those “shovel ready” jobs the administration believes are the path to progress, assuming they are proficient with shovels.

Mr. Gates has decried the “next war-itis” of defense budgeting, by which he means the practice of spending resources on developing weapons for future conflicts instead of taking care of immediate needs first. But given the length of research, development, testing, production and deployment cycles, it is imperative to look ahead lest the country be left fighting the proverbial last war.

Mr. Gates' budget is reactive and backward looking. This is because he is trying to correct a resource imbalance between conventional and unconventional forces that should have been dealt with five years ago, when it would have had greater impact. In his hyper-concentration on special forces and lighter more mobile forces, the defense secretary seems intent on building the ideal force for Iraq circa 2004, a transformation that then-Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld shrugged off when he said, “you go to war with the Army you have.” Five years of painful evolution have brought us the forces and doctrine we need to win unconventional wars, but that does not mean it is the right force for every war.

The 2010 defense budget suffers from loose strategic moorings. The global security landscape is changing, and the Obama administration has yet to publish a comprehensive national-security vision. The Quadrennial Defense Review is still months from its release. Yet, at a time when the United States is increasingly being perceived as a declining power, this defense budget reinforces that image. The current and emerging conventional challengers - Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, among others - will be heartened by the reduced emphasis on weapons systems that might actually deter them from aggressive behavior.

The most glaring disconnect in the new budget is cutting funding for the Missile Defense Agency by $1.4 billion. This reduction was presented without apparent irony only days after North Korea's missile test and months after a more successful test in Iran. Given these and other missile program developments around the world, we would expect that the United States would be making defensive systems a priority instead of cutting them. Missiles, particularly those armed with nuclear warheads, are the emerging threat from the developing world, and national security demands that its defensive technology be perfected before it is needed. This may be “next war-itis,” but it also could be called common sense.

The silver lining in this cloudy sky is that Congress probably will resurrect the conventional weapons systems Mr. Gates proposes to eliminate. After all, the cuts only amount to tens of billions of dollars. These days, that is not considered a lot of money in Washington. But no matter how the budget process plays out, one scary fact has been made clear: The Obama administration does not view defense as a priority.

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