Channeling Ike | Wages of War | Camp Followers | The Real Strategic Threat

Channeling Ike—Robert Gates’s May 8 address at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, got passing attention from the media when he delivered it. Two months later, the speech has taken on a life of its own, in particular at the Pentagon, where it is read as a warning about out-of-control budgets, a dysfunctional appropriations process, and Congressional appropriators force-feeding generals weapons systems they have said they don’t want.

Gates said that Eisenhower feared that the country could “turn into a muscle-bound garrison state — militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent.”

Gates directed the CIA under George H. W. Bush, served as George W. Bush’s defense secretary (replacing Donald Rumsfeld), and was asked by Barack Obama to stay on as secretary of defense. Yet his speech reads as if it were informed by the work of Colonel Andrew Bacevich (author of ).

“For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China? These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today,” Gates said.

The speech was in no way a farewell to arms, and in fact includes an argument for sustained modest growth in the military budget. But Gates used General Eisenhower’s uniform as cover to rip into a defense establishment that has grown both bloated and avaricious, recalling that Ike was “probing” and “ruthless” when it came to forcing the military establishment to justify its programs.

Masters of War—Ashton Carter cited Gates’s speech when he briefed reporters after a breakfast with defense contractor CEOs on June 28. Carter, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, was rolling out a new program intended to add 2 percent to 3 percent to available defense funds each year within the increase in the annual appropriation — by eliminating waste and inefficiencies. This is not the first time the suits at the Pentagon have used a “making a list, checking it twice” approach to promote efficiency of the most bloated and inefficient sector of the economy. But with Gates (literally) looking over his shoulder, Carter admitted what would have been considered DOD heresy five years ago: we have entered an era in which the defense budget will not be growing rapidly.

Wages of War—At $739 billion, the defense budget for 2011 is 4.8 percent of the gross domestic product and has more than doubled since the end of the 1990s, when it was $339 billion and 3.1 percent of GDP.

Camp Followers—Gates and Carter make the case for creating an acquisition process that shifts wasted dollars from contractors working with an inefficient process, and putting the money into the hands of the “warfighters.” How much is enough? Current warfighter costs are $600 thousand per year for each soldier in Iraq and $1.2 million per troop in Afghanistan. Why the difference? The terrain and lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan, according to Andrew Krepinevich, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In a press briefing, Krepinevich pointed out another cost-driver in Afghanistan. There are roughly the same number of contractors as uniformed military personnel on the ground.

The Real Strategic Threat—Admiral Mike Mullen had a slightly different take on strategic threats to U.S. national security. “I’ve said it several times publicly. I think the biggest threat we have to our national security is our debt. I was shown a figure the other day by the comptroller of the Pentagon that said that the debt — I think it’s 2012 — but the interest on our debt is $571 billion.” That makes debt service roughly equal to the base budget for the military. Mullen also saluted Gates’s effort to wring 2 percent to 3 percent out of each year’s defense budget and put the money in the field with the troops. Mullen spoke at a Tribute to the Troops breakfast, where he was joined by Representative Gene Taylor (D-MS), the patron of the “$3 billion to $6 billion destroyers” that Gates says the Navy can no longer afford.