In proposing a major reshaping of defense spending even before the White House has processed the proposals and added its stamp of hopeful approval to the blueprint, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that it will be difficult “to make tough choices about specific systems and defense priorities based solely on the national interest and then stick to those decisions over time.”
That has to stand as one of the understatements of this or any century.
If there is a model of pure socialism in this country, it has to be the cluster of government-dependent companies known as the defense industry, or the military-industrial complex. Over the last half-century-plus a complex of companies has grown up whose only customer is the government, which means that the need for the kind of competition you see in more market-oriented industries simply doesn’t apply. Political influence replaces customer preference in determining output.
Numerous defense secretaries, including Donald Rumsfeld and even Dick Cheney, have made yeoman efforts to reform the convoluted defense procurement process to make it more flexible and more capable of responding to the changing needs of military forces in the kinds of battles we are actually fighting rather than continuing to spend excessively to counter a Soviet Union that hasn’t existed for almost 20 years. Each has failed.
Secretary Gates’s impulses are constructive. He would produce only four more of the advanced $150-million F-22 fighter, topping the arsenal at 187, and divert spending to the less expensive F-35. He would stop buying the C-17 cargo plane, the Navy’s stealth destroyer and the Army’s futuristic combat vehicles. He would spend less on missile defense and more on unmanned drones of the kind being used in Pakistan, and beef up Special Forces for guerrilla-style operations. He would cut back on aircraft carrier groups — from 11 to 10 by 2040(!) — and build more smaller ships for closer-to-shore combat support operations.
Such reforms, combined with the kind of defense procurement reforms Secretary Gates proposes, would probably give the U.S. a more agile and effective military. Unfortunately, few are likely to come to pass.
Perhaps all you need to know about the chances for ending F-22 production is that there are subcontractors for the plane in 44 states. That means that members of Congress in both parties have an interest in defending the program regardless of whether it is needed or useful or not. Likewise, the C-17 has subcontractors in 40 states.
Ivan Eland, before becoming head of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace and Liberty, worked as a defense budget analyst for Congress. He told us that Mr. Gates is likely to get some of what he proposes “around the margins,” but little of fundamental importance. “These defense contractors are politically shrewd,” he told us. “They realize the administration will have to be able to point to a few successes.” So the $11 billion program to build a new fleet of presidential helicopters may be eliminated, especially since President Obama has said he doesn’t see the need for it. The Army’s ambitious Future Combat Systems program may be scaled back. But the most sacred cows will remain intact.
The way the military-industrial complex operates, Mr. Eland suggested, is to slow down production of major weapons systems that come under criticism or are slated by the Pentagon for extinction. But that simply raises the unit cost and keeps the dinosaurs coming.
We wish Secretary Gates all the best in this latest effort to reform the Pentagon procurement system and eliminate unneeded defense systems. But we doubt if he’ll have much success.