US Defense Secretary Robert Gates criss-crossed the US this week trying to get the top brass behind his cost-cutting military budget that would boost funds for counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each day, the Pentagon chief stopped at one of the war colleges that train officers for the different branches of the military to convince his hosts of the idea of scaling back major conventional weapons programs that sets some teeth gnashing.
On Friday, before a group of Marine Corps officers at Newport Beach, Rhode Island, Gates’ message was unswerving: It’s imperative to “rebalance the department’s programs in order to institutionalize and enhance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead.”
The Pentagon chief on Wednesday told Air Force officers not to expect any more F-22 Raptors, saying there was no need to greatly expand the aircraft fleet beyond the already approved production of 187.
The Raptors, equipped with radar-evading technology and built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, cost about US$350 million each and have been in development since the Cold War.
The Air Force had proposed building nearly 400 of the aircraft but critics said such an expansion was excessive at a time when US troops in the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan are asking for unmanned drones to help them combat Islamist militants.
“Much of the problem, in my view, stemmed from the fact that for too long there was a belief or a hope that Iraq and Afghanistan were exotic distractions that would be wrapped up relatively soon — the regimes toppled, the insurgencies crushed, the troops brought home,” Gates repeated throughout the week.
Gates said the needs in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been adequately addressed in the Pentagon budget, which continues to invest enormously in costly, conventional weapons programs that for some are out of touch with reality.
At the Army’s War College on Thursday, voices were raised when Gates recommended canceling plans for more C-17 transport aircraft and scrapping a US$160 billion US Army vehicle that forms part of a hi-tech network known as Future Combat Systems (FCS).
“It’s been strongly endorsed by Army leadership throughout the last few years. And ... it appeared like a unilateral decision on your part,” an officer shouted out.
While admitting he made a decision that the Army’s top brass “disagree with,” Gates replied that the FCS vehicle was developed nine years ago, had weak armor and lacked a V-shaped hull that deflects explosions.
He said the FCS vehicle was “reflecting no lessons learned” from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the chief cause of US troop deaths are roadside bombs. Gates’ reasoning was met with some nods of agreement, but also sighs and shoulder shrugs.
Even if Gates manages to put most of the military behind his proposals, his work will be far from done.
To include his streamlined weapons program in the Pentagon’s US$540 billion budget for next year, Gates will have to battle lawmakers and influential defense industry contractors, who have often rebuffed past attempts to slash mammoth weapons projects.