Gates on the Defense Budget

I’ve just gotten off a conference call with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in which he talked about the budget.

Probably the most notable thing he said was the stern words he offered for members of the military who may not be happy with some of the decisions he’s made. At first it was all sweetness and light with Gates remarking that “we had a process that was very inclusive” and observing that there were “a lot of meetings and a lot of dialogue on all this, and I think everybody knows that they had a chance to put their oar in and make their case” so everyone should be happy. But then he started to get real and said:

One of the concerns that I have had in the past has been the discipline in this building after the decisions get made; I understand that the chiefs in particular can give their professional military advice to the congress and to the president, but the fact is that for everyone else and, frankly, for them in terms of executing their positions once I have made my decision and the president has made his decision, that is the policy of this department . . . I don’t want to see any guerilla warfare on this . . . we have a chain of command.

In addition to tough talk, the specific bureaucratic plan of action is to portray the shift in spending priorities as, implicitly, a shift away from what folks inside the Beltway may like to what combatant commanders out in the field are asking for. Gates said that these aren’t cuts. Rather, it’s “reshaping” specifically the kind of reshaping “that the combatant commanders are asking for.” The process, he said, “is a lot about the warfighters, the combatant commanders and the fight they’re in.” Though he was quick to say that he believes his choices reflect not only the priorities of combatant commanders actively engaged in military action, but also those primarily tasked with “preventing war.”

On specifics, Gates said that the problem with the Army’s Future Combat Systems program isn’t just the cost. It’s that there wasn’t enough flexibility. Based on the operational lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s useful to have a broad range of different kinds of vehicles, and it wasn’t proving feasible through the FCS process to design a system that could replace the full spectrum of currently available vehicles.

Spectrum is an important concept. The weighting from regular to irregular warfare in the budget is undeniable, but Gates said he didn’t want to see it as a binary choice. Instead “there is a spectrum of conflict” and the goal of the force needs to be to be able to shift up and down the spectrum.

Conversely, Gates is holding on to the Littoral Combat System project for the Navy even though the program has had a lot of cost overruns and so forth. Gates said that despite the problems “I think it has a capability we just have to have.” Specifically, the promise of a ship that’s not only agile, but relative cheap on a per-ship basis is large. “You don’t need a $5 billion ship to go after pirates,” Gates said.