Smart defense spending requires a rethinking of priorities

While he served as Secretary of Defense for both Presidents Bush and Obama, Robert Gates liked to point out that people in our Army bands outnumber our Foreign Service officers.

I suspect Secretary Gates likes band music as much as anyone, but he was making a telling point about priorities.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta kicked off a critically important debate when he unveiled the Obama administration’s recommendations for the next defense budget. This budget will determine not just how much will be spent but what our future priorities will be. How we structure our armed forces will have enormous impact on how we conduct foreign policy for decades to come.

The debate will no doubt be characterized on the floors of Congress and in most of the media as between the hawks and the doves. But this budget goes way beyond that simplistic division. To understand its rationale, I recommend Secretary Gates’ article in the January/February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “A Balanced Strategy — Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age”

His opening paragraph defines what this debate will really be all about: “The defining principle of the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy is balance. The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything. The Department of Defense must set priorities and consider inescapable trade-offs and opportunity costs.”
We must break with the department’s historic focus on conventional and strategic conflicts, Gates says, a focus that is “deeply embedded in the Defense Department’s budget, in its bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress.”

How embedded? In 2009 when I first met with Secretary Gates, to my mind one of our greatest public officials, we discussed the long, frustrating fight made in previous years by then-Sen. Biden to equip our troops with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. MRAPs were specifically designed to replace armored Humvees and give better protection to those inside vehicles hit by roadside bombs (IEDs).
Gates told me that the Defense Department as an institution fought against the MRAPs because it did not want to take money away from conventional programs. He said that, even though he headed the department, he had been forced to find ways around the system to deliver the MRAPs. One of the major reasons for the reduction of casualties in Iraq and the lower casualty rates in Afghanistan, where the IED is the weapon of choice, is that Secretary Gates was successful.

We must never give up our ability to fight conventional wars. But the truth is there is no army or even a combination of armies in the world that have the capability to take us on in conventional warfare.

It is time to change the culture in the Defense Department so that we can better prepare for what Gates calls the far more likely “prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign — a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation.”

These battles will require the weapons of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) that worked so well in Iraq, and is being deployed in Afghanistan.

We need nonlethal weapons that give the Marine guarding a checkpoint the option not to fire at the approaching bus that could be filled with explosives — or with children. We need forensic equipment to give us the ability to identify and catch the IED manufacturer.
We have to expand our use of small unmanned aircraft and ground robots that give our troops the intelligence they need when approaching a village that might be home to hidden snipers. We must spend more money on research on these systems and then the money to get them in the troops’ hands as soon as possible.

Gates goes on to say that “where possible, what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit. “It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideologies.”

We need to build a corps of civilian experts who can provide the non-military help needed in counterinsurgencies — experts in governance, development, education and all the other areas that are needed to ensure success. We need to fight the media wars with more funding to take on the government media giants from Al Jazeera to China International radio and TV. We need more education and exchange programs.

Change is always difficult. But spending billions to fight yesterday’s wars is not an option. Let’s hope that the upcoming debate will give us the defense policy we need for the 21st century.

Originally published 5 Feb 2012 on