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Q&A: Gordon Adams

Photo of a U.S. Marine jet.

Secretary Gates's Defense Budget

In the third of our continuing series of interviews with American University experts, foreign policy professor and former Clinton administration official Gordon Adams shares his thoughts on Defense Secretary Robert Gates's defense budget. Will it pass through Congress? Will it make the United States safer? Find out.

Q: If it passes, what will be the impact of Defense Secretary Gates’ budget?

GA: Secretary Gates agreed to a defense budget number from the White House that was below the unconstrained "wish list" the services put together last year. It still grows four percent, so nothing except the services wishes has been taken out; the defense budget has not been cut. Round two: he took serious aim at underperforming and un-needed hardware programs like the F-22, the Army's Future Combat System, the Transitional Satellite (T-SAT), the new destroyer, and the President's new helicopter (with Obama's support). He gets points for courage up front, and for a determination to make tough choices the services and the Congress did not want to make. 
The moment to make these choices is now. A popular president, an economic crisis, a supportive Congress, the first year of a new presidency (with elections 18 months away), a Republican (and presumably short-term) Secretary of Defense. This is the "golden moment" for tough choices and Gates is stepping up to the plate and swinging.
If the Gates proposal passes through the Congress unscathed, it will set Department of Defense and the military on a different road, toward systems that fit the combat missions we face today, not the threats of yesterday. The next step will be the Quadrennial Defense Review this spring and summer, which has to re-enforce this direction.
There will be little or no economic impact from the budget or these hardware decisions, should they pass through Congress. Defense is only four percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP); hardware acquisition and research for defense is closer to one percent of the GDP. The defense industry is working full steam now, with a huge backlog of procurement, whose budgets have doubled over the past eight years. Even Lockheed has now said that when the F-22 line closes, they will shift the work force to other programs.

Q: How much opposition is the defense budget going to face in Congress and in military circles?

GA: The contractors are up in arms, as are the lobbyists, and some of the appropriators; they all want the unnecessary and underperforming programs back. Gates has backed off the Air Force and Lockheed, the F-22 contractor, but watch for Rep. Murtha and Sen. Inouye trying to sneak some of these program terminations back into the budget, using the FY 2009 supplemental budget that was transmitted this month.

Q: What aspects of the budget will face the greatest opposition?

GA: Hardware, hardware, and more hardware. The industry and many in Congress do not like to lose the underperforming and un-necessary programs. In 1980 I wrote a book called The Iron Triangle, describing the combination of Congress, the industry, and the military services, who keep programs alive. The Iron Triangle is still alive and well; it will try to save these programs, if it can.

Q: The budget calls for cutting many popular programs in favor of new technology to help with a new kind of enemy. Is this the right approach for the future of our defense program?

GA: No question this is the right track. The US spends more on defense today, in constant dollars, than at any time since World War II. We spend almost as much as all the rest of the countries in the world combined. With this spending we have purchased a full spectrum of military capability. We are the only country that has global military communications, logistics, and transportation. Our high end defense technology surpasses everyone else on the planet. Nobody is now prepared to make the kind of investments we make in technology. The thousands of fighter aircraft, 11 carrier battle groups, and over 40 Army brigades we deploy put every other country to shame in terms of readiness, capability, and agility. It is a virtual no-brainer that we have enough, and that Gates is right - we need to look to specific capabilities to deal with the missions for which we are actually deploying forces today.

Q: Obama promised to double foreign assistance and to restore the strength of our diplomatic capabilities.  Will the new budget advance these goals?
GA: There is no more important national security task today than to strengthen our civilian capabilities.  We badly need more diplomats, trained to the 21st century missions we face, and more foreign assistance providers at a strengthened USAID to restore our role as a leader in diplomacy and development. Obama's budget proposal grows defense by four percent; it grows international affairs spending (for diplomacy and foreign assistance) by nine percent. So here, too, we are on our way to the objective. Congress will be tempted (already was in their budget resolution) to cut this spending, because it lacks a constituency at home. But this is a "pay now or pay later" proposition; weak diplomacy and foreign assistance almost guarantees that we will have to "send the Marines" later on.

Q: Shouldn't we just ask DOD to do the regional security and foreign assistance missions; they are organized and already have a lot of new foreign assistance programs they developed for Iraq and Afghanistan?
GA: One of the most dangerous legacies of the last administration was to ask the military to define our security assistance programs, and execute foreign assistance. It has created a dangerous imbalance in the foreign policy toolkit, raising serious questions about civil-military relations. And it is a bad idea: relying on the military to do these jobs adds to the stress they already experience and gives them a task for which they are not trained or especially skilled. It reinforces the notion that our civilian agencies cannot do the job, making their weakness a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, most dangerous of all, it puts a uniformed face on America's international engagement, which has had the consequence of weakening our popularity and credibility over the past eight years. It is time to re-balance the toolkit.

Gordon Adams

Gordon Adams

Professor of U.S foreign policy

Can discuss: Defense budgets; foreign policy; Congress and national security; transatlantic national security relationships; and European defense and security issues

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