The Magazine

The Gates Legacy

The Pentagon is not ready for the 21st century. But it’s not too late to change course.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JIM TALENT
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Moreover, funding for the military would have been entirely consistent with the logic of the stimulus bill, which was to create jobs through government spending. Gates’s unwillingness to advocate using stimulus money to modernize the military may be remembered as one of the most consequential mistakes ever made by a secretary of defense. He can still recover, at least partly. By most estimates, there are up to several hundred billions of stimulus money still unspent. Understandably, House Republicans want to reclaim that money for deficit reduction. The administration will oppose that effort. Gates could propose as a compromise that a portion of the funding be used over the next two to three years to support basic procurement needs, like “resetting” Army and Marine Corps equipment and buying more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. After that period, it is reasonable to hope that the cost of Afghanistan operations will begin to come down. Part of the money currently spent there could be recaptured for modernization, which would allow room for the military to recapitalize while the defense budget still contributes to deficit reduction. 

In any event, Gates should stop using “resource constraints” as an excuse for cutting defense programs. Given the orgy of social spending by the Obama administration, he is only contributing to a level of disingenuousness unusual even for Washington.

Covering for the Missile Defense Fiasco

In September 2009, the Obama administration suddenly cancelled America’s commitment to place missile interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland. This was clearly an attempt to appease the Russians. Ever since—and in particular, after it was clear the United States got nothing from the Russians in return for such a gigantic concession—the administration has attempted to justify its betrayal of the Czechs and Poles on military grounds. The administration has claimed that a sea-based alternative (which it hurriedly is attempting to develop) is superior to land-based interceptors. Gates has allowed his credibility and that of the Defense Department to be used to promote this rationalization.

Gates contends that the long-range ICBM threat from Iran has slowed while U.S. capacity to defend against short- and mid-range missiles has developed faster than anticipated. Therefore, he argues, it was safe to abandon our arrangement with Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Yet the Pentagon repeatedly has said Iran is in rapid pursuit of long-range capability and, with foreign assistance, will be able to develop and test a missile capable of reaching U.S. shores by 2015. The interceptors in Eastern Europe would have been capable of shooting down such a missile. The administration’s sea-based plan, which Gates endorsed, will not have that capability until around 2020, if the plan ever comes on line.

To this point, the administration hasn’t been able to answer the questions Congress has asked about the costs or timetable for deployment of the sea-based alternative—not to mention the ability of the surface fleet to add yet another mission to a stretched force without getting more ships and other resources.

In short, the Polish and Czech missile interceptors were not a redundant capability. That’s why the Bush administration, with Gates’s support, pursued them so strongly. In any event, if there is one place where the United States needs redundancy, it is in the ability to defeat—and so deter​—a nuclear attack. If the Obama administration really had been concerned about missile defense in Europe, it would have augmented rather than replaced the land-based interceptors.

Gates has failed to stand up for missile defense in other respects. With his approval, the administration reduced the overall budget for the missile shield last year by $1.6 billion, or 15 percent. Specifically, the administration:

♦ scaled back the planned number of ground-based “midcourse” interceptors in Alaska and California from 44 to 30;

♦ terminated the Multiple Kill Vehicle program for defeating an enemy’s countermeasures;

♦ deferred purchase of a second Airborne Laser aircraft;

♦ killed the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program for intercepting ballistic missiles in the boost phase; and

♦ purged funds for the space “test bed” for missile defense.

There is a reason why North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and Iran is seeking to do so. Nuclear weapons empower rogue regimes to use aggressive tactics in accomplishing their regional ambitions. That leads to ongoing conflict and the prospect of escalation into major confrontations. A fully deployed missile shield would neuter that threat and reduce the danger that the nuclear cascade will spread to other countries. 

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