June 23, 2009 | Commentary on Federal Budget, National Security and Defense

A Misguided Quest to Reform the Pentagon

defense Secretary Robert Gates is on a quest to reform the Pentagon, and nearly everyone is cheering him on. Firing generals, slashing major defense programs and railing against the bureaucracy have given him big approval ratings.

Don't look for us in the cheering crowd. We often wind up on opposite sides of key debates. But we share a passion for a strong national defense and a sinking feeling that Gates' quest for military "balance" isn't what it seems.

Simply cancelling programs is not reform. The defense budget for fiscal year 2010 has been presented to Congress only in pieces. And what has not been provided is justified by a defense strategy issued in a previous administration. It's been unsettling to listen to the thin explanations of program cuts during testimony and press questioning. What looks like bold reform is more akin to recklessness. Gates has shaped a defense budget strategy over the objections of the Joint Chiefs and out in front of the Obama administration. Two anomalies occurred when Gates began his effort to rebalance the Pentagon strategy a year ago. First, as Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post reported, all four service chiefs "non-concurred" with the Gates defense strategy while it was being drafted. This is astonishing. To non-concur in the formal Pentagon process is a serious step. Yet Gates signed the strategy anyway, later publishing a version of it in Foreign Affairs for good measure. Gates then stayed on as defense secretary and retained a small group of advisers to put his strategy into the April 2009 budget demarche.

Although he may not have intended it, Gates' off-cycle strategy and budget recommendations pre-empted the White House evaluation process.

As Gates himself said last year, his national defense strategy flowed from George W. Bush's national security strategy. Unless President Obama is now adopting Bush administration policies, we're left with the cart before the horse. That's a problem, because by law the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is supposed to reflect the new administration's national security strategy, not retread the old one. defense policy is supposed to be subordinate to foreign policy.

It looks fishy. The chiefs were silenced, Congress wasn't given full information on the budget out-years, and the Pentagon is now rushing through what amounts to a rubber-stamped QDR. Is this the type of transparency in government we were promised?

We believe both the process and recommendations it has produced thus far could seriously undermine national defense. We question how Gates can emphasize preparing for "the wars we are most likely to fight," while accepting greater risks that undermine our extended deterrence. We cringe when we hear the dismissive tone surrounding key decisions, such as ending the modernization program for search-and-rescue missions. And we shake our heads when the Secretary adopts a threats-based approach to Navy force structure planning, choosing to focus on the "actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries," instead of taking a long-view of the fleet that will be required for tomorrow. This kind of hubris may threaten the military's ability to stay ahead of technologically sophisticated threats and compromise what's left of our industrial base.

The fundamental assumption driving the Gates strategy itself wavers on whether to prepare for future threats. This has stalled decisions on future service concepts and modernization. The Gates Pentagon has shown little sustained appetite for delving into the hard issues of declining readiness and bulging manpower costs. The strategy and budget mismatch is unsustainable. Could that be what the chiefs were trying to tell the secretary of defense a year ago? America's allies are sensing the change, too. Australia is postulating a time when the Asia-Pacific region may not benefit from U.S. economic or military dominance for the first time since the end of World War II.

Japan finds itself the neighbor of a nuclear-armed rogue state and the world's fastest-rising military power. Poland and the Czech Republic are already afraid of the Russian backlash if the plan for a third missile-defense site is squashed. Is there still time to take stock? Maybe. We urge Congress to stick to the laws it wrote and insist that the QDR be conducted only after the Obama White House first releases a new national security strategy. We also recommend Congress charter a wholly independent National Defense Panel to stimulate alternate viewpoints to the Pentagon strategy. A similar panel reported out in 1998 and helped predict upcoming challenges from cyber war to terrorism.

Let's hear from President Obama and from an independent National Defense Panel before this hasty restructuring of America's military power is signed, sealed and delivered.

Mackenzie Eaglen is the Senior Policy Analyst for defense and homeland security issues in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Rebecca Grant is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.

About the Author

Mackenzie Eaglen Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service