Robert Gates’ Budget Rationalization Effort

Robert Gates

Fareed Zakaria sings the praises of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ efforts to streamline the Pentagon budget:

Can anyone seriously question Gates’s ideas on the merits? He has pointed out that the spiraling cost of defense hardware has led to the absurdity of destroyers that cost $2 billion to $3 billion per ship and bombers that cost $2 billion per plane. He notes that while the private sector has eliminated middle management and streamlined organization charts, the Pentagon has multiplied its layers of bureaucracy. A decade ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained that there were 17 levels of staff between him and a line officer. Gates guesses that there are now about 30.

These are good points and I support what Gates is trying to do. But one shouldn’t neglect the point raised by my colleague Lawrence Korb, that at the end of the day these efficiency measures he’s proposing don’t seriously reduce America’s over-commitment to military spending:

The Pentagon budget will not decline even if all these comparatively small savings come to pass. Gates wants to use these savings to buy more weapons, and that is the key issue that needs to be addressed. Exactly how many more planes, ships, tanks, and strategic nuclear weapons does the Pentagon need and for what purpose? Gates asked why the Navy needs 11 aircraft carriers when the rest of the world has only one. But when pressed on the issue, he said he would not recommend a reduction in the carrier force. That question will obviously have to be answered by a secretary of defense who wants to deal with the big issues.

There’s always a difference between seeking greater efficiency and seeking cuts in absolute terms. On education, I think the United States needs a lot more efficiency but probably also moderately more spending. On the military, more efficiency is welcome but what’s actually needed is reducing the share of national wealth that goes to this purpose.


Robert Farley tells me that the rest of the world actually has three aircraft carriers—one each for Brazil, Russia, and France. Clearly, the lesson is that we need 30.

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