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Gates' Swan Song? Gates' Swan Song?

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Gates' Swan Song?

In pleading for sanity in providing for "the common defense," as the Constitution puts it, Defense Secretary Gates sounds to me like a man who (1) plans to announce his resignation from Fort Fumble right after the midterm elections and leave office by the end of this year; (2) wants to burnish his reputation as a reformer before he becomes just another Washington has-been or (3) has persuaded President Obama to take the defense budget off the White House "don't touch" list, starting next year.

Whatever his reasons, Gates is clearly fed up with the status quo in the military-industrial-political complex.


Whether he can really change anything, given the supine Congress that regards building weapons as a public-works program and raising military pay as its sacred duty, is questionable. But he is at least shouting wake-up calls. Hooray for Bob Gates.

His recent shouts:

-- May 3 at Navy League Sea Air Expo, National Harbor, Md. "The U.S. operates 11 large [aircraft] carriers, all nuclear-powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship. ... The virtual monopoly the U.S. has enjoyed with precision guided weapons is eroding -- especially with long range, accurate anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that can potentially strike from over the horizon. Our current plan is to have 11 carrier strike groups through 2040," with each new carrier costing $20 billion, including the cost of the aircraft on board. "Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?"


I was on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy for seven-and-a-half months in 1983-84 to write a book on that floating city. Carrier pilots pointed out to me that all enemy anti-ship missiles would have to do to stop operations was damage the flight deck, not sink the carrier. Parked planes on the deck are highly flammable and the launching gear is complex and difficult to repair.

Gates also stabbed the Marine Corps' sacred cow, amphibious landings, in the heart. "We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing -- especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. ... In the 21st Century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios?" The Marines already have the use of the Navy's 10 large-deck amphibious ships "while no other Navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to allies or friends."

"We have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 billion to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers," or $20 billion if the cost of aircraft is included. "We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms."

-- May 7 at the Army's Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "We have to think about things differently. ... The Army keeps wanting to fight the Fulda Gap" where generals during the Cold War feared Warsaw Pact forces would invade Western Europe; "the Navy keeps wanting to fight [the Battle of] Midway" of World War II; "the Marine Corps keeps wanting to do Inchon," the amphibious landing during the Korean War; and "the Air Force keeps wanting to fly airplanes" at a time unmanned ones are the weapons of choice in Pakistan.


The Navy wants a fleet of 313 ships -- "we're about 285, 286 right now -- [but] we are not going to get there if we can't get the costs of shipbuilding under control ...We put so much technology" in ships and aircraft "that we can't buy nearly as many as we need ... Our original plan was to buy 132 B-2 bombers. At $2 billion apiece, we bought 20." Soviet leader Joseph Stalin "once said that at a certain point, quantity has a quality of its own. I believe that."

-- May 8, Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kan. "The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given America's difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time. ... The goal to cut our overhead costs" will dominate the Pentagon's construction of the FY12 Defense budget now under way, Gates promised. He said before his formal speech that the president and Congress "will look hard" before leaping into "another military operation that would cost us $100 billion a year."

By the Pentagon's count, it has active duty troops in about 150 countries. A case can be made that America's excessive militarism is sapping its strength. Gates seems to realize this.

The key question is whether his boss, Obama, realizes this as well and will pull in the country's horns before smarter terrorists follow the one who tried to blow up part of New York to avenge our attacks against them on their home ground.

This article appears in the May 22, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.

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