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Gates and the System

Just as it did the press, Secretary of Defense Gates decisions on hardware will completely preoccupy Congress. A major food fight is sure to break out over the end of F-22 production at 187 very expensive, not particularly impressive fighters, no new presidential or search and rescue helicopters (for now), no more C-17s, and a very few other clean cut terminations.

While Washington DC hisses and spits over the secretary’s hardware recommendations, it is probably more important to ask, what has changed, and if anything has, where are we now going?

It does not appear that the basic DOD budget has changed; this set of decisions may be budget neutral, or it may even hold in its future expanded net spending requirements.

We have not changed an anticipation to prepare for occupations in foreign lands (the advocates call it “counter-insurgency”), or to continue to spend most of our defense budget on forms of conventional warfare most reminiscent of the mid twentieth century. To fight the indistinct, unspecified conflicts we may have to face in the foreseeable future, what has changed? The strategy? The shrinkage of the hardware inventory and its age? While many decisions were made, the Pentagon-ship of state appears to be very much on the same basic course.

For the defense Department’s broken acquisition system, the Secretary’s endorsement of the Levin – McCain “procurement reform” bill (now watered down at the Defense Department’s urging) means that business as usual is very alive and well. There will be some new bottles for some very old wine, but the bitterness of the taste will still be around as we rush to build untested aircraft (e.g. F-35), endorse problematic, unaffordable ship designs (e.g. LCS), and spend generously to defend against less, not more likely, threats (e.g. missile defense).

For one set of decisions, even if they are unspectacular, Secretary Gates deserves much good credit. He made people his first priority. Hopefully, that was not just rhetorical. The emphasis he put on medical research, caring for the wounded, and family support are all to be greatly commended. I fear, however, that Congress will do little more on this prime issue than simply throw money – as it has in the past.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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