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Never Give Up, Never Give In

12:12 PM, Apr 16, 2009 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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"As we saw last week, you don't necessarily need a billion-dollar ship to chase down a bunch of teenage pirates." Defense Secretary Robert Gates was pretty pleased not only with the marksmanship of the Navy SEALs that ended the confrontation with the Somali pirates who tried to hijack the Maersk Alabama and led to the rescue of the ship's captain Richard Phillips, but with how the incident appeared to justify his recently revealed plans to reduce defense spending.

But Gates not only seems to forget that the snipers were aboard the billion-dollar USS Bainbridge--a highly sophisticated destroyer--that had been towing the pirates' boat, but to have forgotten a much more menacing standoff-at-sea just a month ago. On March 8, Chinese "fishing vessels" started poking at the towed-array sonar of the USS Impeccable about 75 miles off the coast of Hainan Island, where China has built a massive submarine base, not too far from where in 2001 a Chinese MiG bumped a Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft. Indeed, there has been a consistent and increasing pattern of maritime confrontation with the Chinese: In late 2006 a Chinese Song-class submarine, which had not been detected, surfaced close to the carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

Despite this persistent pattern of provocation by the Chinese military, the defense secretary tried to downplay the Impeccable incident. He also seems to be unfamiliar with the conclusions of the Pentagon's own series of annual reports on China's rising ambitions and improving capabilities. "I don't think that they're trying to push the Seventh Fleet out of that area," he demurred at the time. But that is precisely what the Chinese would like to do.

Gates has rightly been emphasizing the need to ensure that irregular warfare concerns have "a seat at the table" in Pentagon program deliberations. But it's increasingly clear that, given the large-scale cutbacks directed by President Obama, Gates' rhetoric is becoming an excuse for budget cuts rather than an argument about the nature of the threats we face. If the administration's commitment to irregular warfare were genuine, it would not have been content to simply confirm the land-force expansion plan completed under President Bush, but would, as Sens. Joseph Lieberman and John Cornyn have advocated, continue to grow the Army.

We should expect to see more pirate-type lesson-learning from the administration and from the punditocracy. Gates made his remarks at the Air War College and is on an extended road trip selling the budget cuts against a war-college backdrop. He's transparently reprising his telling-hard-truths tour of last year, and that always plays to the vanity of the commentariat--Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria already has labeled Gates a "genius."

But there are more things in heaven and earth and war than pirates and insurgents. Hedging against Chinese or Russian aggression--the invasion of Georgia was another reminder of the dangers of building a military for only irregular warfare purposes--or defending against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles will require different kinds of forces. And more expensive forces: there are circumstances where a billion-dollar ship is more than a billion times better than a $500-million ship.