When a true genius appears," the English satirist Jonathan Swift wrote, "you may know him by this sign; that all the dunces are in confederacy against him." Genius might be a bit much as a description of the secretary of defense, but Robert Gates's budget proposal has certainly gathered all the right opponents. There are the defense contractors, worried that decades of fraudulent accounting are coming to a halt; the Beltway consultants for whom the war on terror has been a bonanza; the armed services, which have gotten used to having every fantasy funded; and the congressmen who protect all this institutionalized corruption just to make sure they keep jobs in their state.
If you're wondering where to come down on the Gates plan, here's a simple guide: John McCain, the most thoughtful, reform-minded legislator on military issues, "strongly supports" it. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe—who has compared the EPA to the Gestapo, Carol Browner to Tokyo Rose and environmentalists to the Third Reich—warns that it will lead to the "disarming of America." You choose.
In recent decades, defense budgeting has existed in a dreamland, where ever-more-elaborate weapons are built without regard to enemies, costs or trade-offs. In 2008 the General Accounting Office said cost overruns for the Pentagon's 95 biggest weapons programs—just the overruns!—added up to $300 billion. The system has become so pervasive and entrenched that most people no longer bother to get outraged.
The endless flow of cash from the taxpayer has prevented strategic thought. Much of the Pentagon budget is based on wish lists from the services, often lists that were conceived during the Cold War. The Air Force developed such a strong attachment to its F-22 fighter-plane program that it failed to notice that the Soviet Union had collapsed and no great-power rival was around to get into dogfights with the U.S. military. We're fighting two wars right now, and not one of the 135 or so F-22s that we already have is being used in either theater. If you're wondering why the program is still around, here's one reason: its manufacture has been spread across 44 states.
Gates also trims the Navy's wish list, cutting its destroyer program. But here his ambition suddenly dried up. He did propose that the United States scale back one of its aircraft-carrier groups, going from 11 to 10—but it will happen 31 years from now! Even so, of course, he faces the usual conservative opposition. The Wall Street Journal worries that a 300-ship Navy is "perilously small." In the recent clash with Somali pirates, it points out that U.S. warships were "hours away." Well, if you've traveled by sea, you'll know that ships move slower than planes. Given the vastness of the oceans, the fact that American naval vessels could reach a relatively nonstrategic location within a few hours is actually a sign of the incredible reach of the Navy, not the opposite.
Gates has really just begun a much-needed process of rethinking American defense strategy after the Cold War. He has focused sensibly on the wars we are actually fighting, to make sure the military is equipped to wage them success- fully. But while we don't need the F-22, we are still going to make 2,443 F-35s at an eventual cost of $1 trillion. Do we really need those? What is the thinking behind that program?
American military budgets should be based on two competing imperatives. The first is that we are likely to be engaged in small, complex conflicts with much weaker opponents in difficult terrain. In other words, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Gates budget makes intelligent provision for these kinds of wars—in which manpower and intelligence are key. The second requirement is deterrence. The U.S. military protects global sea lanes and, in a general sense, preserves the peace. If the Somali pirates were to cause too much trouble, eventually it would be the United States military that would help tackle them. If the Chinese were considering offensive actions in Asia, it is the American response that would make them cautious.
But these imperatives can surely be satisfied with a military that is leaner, more cost-effective, more efficient and does keep somewhere in mind the capacity of potential adversaries. The U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft-carrier groups. China has zero. The U.S. defense budget for 2009 is $655 billion. China's is $70 billion, Russia's is $50 billion. America's cumulative cost overruns add up to more than the total annual defense budgets of China, Russia, Britain and France combined. This smacks less of deterrence and more of mindless extravagance and waste.
Coming up next for Gates is the Quadrennial Defense Review. He should take the opportunity—his last one to leave a long legacy—and move the United States toward a military strategy that is shaped by the world we actually inhabit. That would make him a true genius. He will certainly have all the dunces arrayed against him to prove it.