Gates $663 Billion Budget Changes Defense Priorities

April 06, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (defenselink.mil) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (defenselink.mil)

Defense Secretary Gates took a major step toward rebalancing U.S. defense priorities on Monday, announcing a budget request that would severely cut or restrict cherished and expensive Cold War-era programs and institutionalize support for counterinsurgency and irregular warfare.

The long-awaited fiscal 2010 budget request, which has a price tag of $534 billion and climbs to $663.7 billion when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are factored in, cancels the Army’s major vehicle-modernization program, stops the production of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fighter jet, halts the increase of ground-based missile defense programs in favor of more limited missile defense approaches, and treats the Navy’s large surface-warfare platforms like the DDG-1000 with skepticism. It gives priority to the needs of a military at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, by providing $11 billion to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps and expanding intelligence, surveillance and helicopter programs that have performed well in the two ongoing wars — including the Predator drone used by the CIA to attack extremists in Pakistan — as well as to support partner militaries’ counterinsurgency development. “This is a reform budget,” Gates, who was Pentagon chief under George W. Bush and remained on in the Obama administration, told reporters Monday.

Several defense reformers agreed. “The boom finally lowered on the Pentagon’s budget today,” said Laura Peterson, defense budget analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “We applaud [Gates'] rigor in wielding the budget axe.” Robert Work of the Center on Strategic and Budgetary Assessments called it a “very, very encouraging first step.” Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information was more cautious, but said “Secretary Gates deserves much good credit,” especially for making warfighter support “his first priority.”

The White House indicated its support for the budget request, though it has already come under fire from some members of Congress. Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, where the budget request will first go before it reaches Capitol Hill, said it was a “very important step” to “stop the era of irresponsibility, and no longer kick down the road tough decisions we need to make.” He said the budget submission was part of a process to “reorient the Department of Defense and the nation” to “invest in things that work.” Where it identified programs that put a “drain on resources, we have to bite the bullet, if you’ll pardon the expression, and end them.” It is unclear how the request will fare on the Hill, but all sides anticipate a battle.

Gates told reporters that he could not specify precisely how much his proposed cuts would save taxpayers, saying that he had only given the plan to Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale on Thursday. “A lot of this work has to be done in detail,” he said, adding that only after the budget request will be sent to Capitol Hill in the coming days “will we be in a position to talk with some clarity about savings to the five-year defense plan.” A Taxpayers for Common Sense estimate identified at least $108.4 billion in cuts to existing programs, but since some programs will be replaced with others — Gates said there would be a review process to award a contract for an as-yet-undeveloped new Army vehicle to replace the one he scrapped, for instance — it is unclear what, if any, net savings will result.

“It does not appear that the basic [Defense Department] budget has changed,” Wheeler said in an email. “This set of decisions may be budget neutral, or it may even hold in its future expanded net spending requirements.”

Not all of Gates’ cuts were dramatic, nor did every program that has attracted criticism get cut. The Navy will continue to build DDG-1000 Destroyers — blasted by the liberal Center for American Progress as archaic in a report last year — until it completes the three currently on order, but the program will phase out in favor of the DDG-51 Destroyer after that. By 2040, the Navy will drop from 11 aircraft carriers to 10. At the same time, Gates requested increased purchases of the Littoral Combat Ship from two to three this year, and called the much-smaller ship “a key capability for presence, stability, and counterinsurgency operations in coastal regions.” But taken together, the changes indicate that “the large surface-combatant program in the Navy needs to be looked at hard” in a coming defense review later this year, Work said.

One of the more dramatic cuts that Gates did pursue came to the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor. The service and its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, pursued a campaign earlier this year to pressure Gates and President Obama to keep the plane — a fighter jet built during the Cold War that has never been used in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan — off the chopping block. In January, 44 senators of both parties wrote to Obama pleading with him to save the Raptor, which they said provided valuable jobs.

Gates was unpersuaded. He said it was “not a close call” to stop the production of the jet at 187 planes. The Air Force currently has 183 F-22s, and the chief of the service, Gen. Norton Schwartz, suggested to reporters last month that he wanted another 60 of them. Gates insisted that the meager increase and then termination of the planes amounted to the Pentagon “fullfill[ing]” the basic requirements of the program. “It’s not like we’re killing the F-22,” he said. When asked if the Air Force’s generals backed Gates’ decision that stopping the program at 187 planes represented responsible military planning, he replied, “That was their advice as well.” No Air Force official reached for comment would even discuss the F-22 cancellation on background, and Lockheed Martin’s F-22 spokesman did not return requests for comment.

Beginning with last year’s National Defense Strategy issued by the Pentagon, Gates has frequently criticized the Defense Department for being insufficiently supportive of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring to fund and pursue favored defense programs developed before the outbreak of the wars rather than be responsive to the emergent needs of the wars themselves. A speech Gates gave at the National Defense University last year said the Pentagon’s prudential focus on anticipating future conflict risked overlooking current conflict. “We must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide, both short-term and long-term, all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today,” Gates said last year.

The budget proposal follows the National Defense Strategy, Work observed, especially as it presumes for the near-term that the U.S. did not face a threat of conventional conflict from a rival state, one of the strategy’s foundational presumptions. “He started to take programmatic decisions to align the program budget with that reality,” Work said.

Accordingly, Gates shifted the budget request to allow for institutionalized support for irregular warfare — a key goal of the generation of counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners who have emerged from Iraq and Afghanistan. Support for programs desired by counterinsurgents, such as training and mentoring partner militaries in counterinsurgency, have been funded through ad-hoc budgeting during the two wars, but Gates heralded an end to that practice. “Our contemporary wartime needs must receive steady long-term funding and a bureaucratic constituency similar to conventional modernization programs,” he said. Training partner militaries, for instance, will be part of a $500 million effort to “boost global partnership capacity efforts.”

John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security and a longtime advocate of an institutional capability within the Army for training foreign militiaries, praised Gates’ move. “The most important military component of the Long War against radical extremism may not be the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our friends to fight against our common enemies,” Nagl said. This budget takes significant steps in the direction of helping our friends defeat the internal threats to their stability that also threaten us.”

Gates cautioned against reading the budget submission as a triumph of irregular warfare over conventional capabilities, arguing that it “crudely” provides “about 10 percent for irregular warfare, about 50 percent for traditional, strategic and conventional conflict, and about 40 percent dual-purpose capabilities.” His goal was not to see irregular warfare replace conventional warfare in defense budgeting, but rather to give the “irregular-war constituency” a “seat at the table for the first time when it comes to the base budget.”

Already the budget submission has attracted its share of critics, several of them Democrats. Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), who helms the defense subcommittee on the House Appropriations Committee, has indicated support for splitting a program to build Air Force refueling tankers between two contractors, anticipating the position Gates took Monday that the tanker deal should be awarded to a single contractor. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), issued only tepid support for the budget proposal, saying it was “a good faith effort” but that the “the buck stops with Congress, which has the critical Constitutional responsibility to decide whether to support these proposals.” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not issue a statement by press time.

Reformers anticipated a fight for the budget submission in Congress, where champions of the expensive programs cut by Gates may seek to restore funding for them against his will. “Overcoming parochial (read, Congressional) interests will be challenging when appropriations season sets in since the champions of these systems remained largely intact through the last election,” Peterson said in an official statement from Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Gates said he tried not to pay attention to the politics of the defense budget. “I, frankly, decided that I would not take the political issues associated with any of these programs into account; I would just do what I thought was best for the country,” Gates said. “And my hope is that in the months ahead, that, first, the president will approve this budget, and then second, that the Congress, after careful deliberation, will support as much of it as possible.”