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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Under the circumstances, the missile defense shield may be the single most important program in the Pentagon budget. Secretary Gates should strongly and publicly support full funding and accelerated deployment of the system.

Silence on China

America’s secretary of defense has two main jobs. As a senior official in the chain of command, the defense secretary supports military commanders in executing the missions of the nation. Equally important, he must plan and shape the force of the future. And since it takes a long time to develop and deploy new equipment, the Pentagon’s planning horizon is 20 years down the road.

Gates conflates the two responsibilities, to the detriment in particular of our naval and air services. He often refers to the need to “rebalance the force” to better fight the wars of today. If he means only that the services should use current assets to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the statement is unremarkable.

But that isn’t all that Gates means. He uses the current counterinsurgency missions as an excuse for not sustaining programs that are necessary to ensure the United States will be able to contain Russia, Iran, and especially the growing power of China.

One example is Gates’s treatment of the Navy. Its size cut in half since the Reagan years, the Navy at 288 ships is smaller today than at any time since 1916. And it is still shrinking: At the current rate of shipbuilding, the Navy will be reduced to between 210 and 240 ships. No knowledgeable person believes a Navy that size can perform its global missions.

The latest official estimate, by the chief of naval operations in 2006, held that a 313-ship Navy was the minimum necessary for American security. The current chief has endorsed that number. In a speech before the Navy League earlier this year, however, Gates dismissed the idea that the Navy is too weak. He’s since announced that he would not increase the shipbuilding budget and in fact would cut more programs. He already has ended purchases of the next-generation DDG-1000 destroyers; extended production of the next carrier from four years to five; killed the MPF-A large-deck aviation ship and mobile landing platform; and delayed indefinitely the next-generation cruiser, CG(X).

In his speech, Gates dismissed concerns by noting that the world’s other navies, taken as a whole, have shrunk even more. But that is true largely because America’s major European allies have reduced their naval capabilities since the end of the Cold War.

The Chinese, however, aren’t shrinking their navy. Within about five years, their fleet of modern submarines will nearly equal ours. China also is building its first aircraft carrier and has announced plans to build a new class of destroyers. These are two clear signals China seeks the ability not only to hold the U.S. Navy at bay in the Western Pacific, but to project power around the world.

Time to Speak Plainly

For political and practical reasons, Gates largely has escaped criticism during his tenure as defense secretary. Democrats recognize that his prestige is necessary to prop up Obama’s national security credentials. Republicans fear that if Gates is weakened, the administration’s policies may get worse. And to be fair, many of Gates’s questionable actions may have been maneuvers to maintain credibility with the president so that Gates could have more impact on issues, such as Afghanistan, that he rightly cares most about.

But there is a time to maneuver and a time for plain speaking. The time for Gates to speak plainly has come.

At the end of 2009, Congress created an independent panel to critique the Quadrennial Defense Review that the Pentagon issued in February of 2010. That panel was chaired by former secretary of defense William Perry, a Democrat, and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, a Republican. Its members came from across the political spectrum. Most were appointed by Gates himself.

The independent panel issued its unanimous report on July 29. The panel recognized Gates’s dedication to the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; otherwise its report only can be described as a polite but clear rebuke of his leadership.

The panel discussed the threats facing America, dismissed the Defense Department’s strategic plans as largely irrelevant to those threats, and comprehensively documented the growing gap between the actual strength of the military and the level of capability needed to protect America’s enduring national interests.

The panel sounds an extraordinary warning in the introduction to its report:

The issues raised in the body of this report are sufficiently serious that we believe an explicit warning is appropriate. The aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.

Gates is nearing the end of his service as head of the Pentagon. The fewer battles he has left to fight, the less concerned he need be about political consequences. He still has the time to say that, unless Congress adds substantial funding to modernize the military and fully supports changes necessary to reform the Pentagon, no responsible secretary of defense can continue to guarantee American security within an acceptable margin of risk.

Such a statement by Gates would definitely not be business as usual in Washington. It would make him unpopular in the White House and with many in Congress. But it would end, at long last, the tortured rationalizations by which the Joint Chiefs try to reconcile the eroding position of their services with the decisions of their political masters. It would pave the way for an honest debate about the nature of the post-Cold War world and the sacrifices necessary to protect American security in the 21st century. It would be a huge service to whoever succeeds Bob Gates at the Pentagon. And in the most fundamental sense, he’d be doing his job.

Jim Talent, who represented Missouri in both the House and Senate, was chairman of the Seapower Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee for four years.

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