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Secretary Gates, Defense Spending and Ship Building

In a little-covered address this week at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Maryland, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates stopped just short of ripping defense contractors a new one. Of course, Gates was diplomatic in his admonishment, but the message was clear: we have to be smarter about defense spending, particularly when it comes to the Navy:

These [spending] issues invariably bring up debates over so-called “gaps” between stated requirements and current platforms — be they ships, aircraft, or anything else.  More often than not, the solution offered is either more of what we already have or modernized versions of preexisting capabilities.  This approach ignores the fact that we face diverse adversaries with finite resources that consequently force them to come at the U.S. in unconventional and innovative ways.  The more relevant gap we risk creating is one between capabilities we are pursuing and those that are actually needed in the real world of tomorrow.

Considering that, the Department must continually adjust its future plans as the strategic environment evolves. …

[W]e have to accept some hard realities.  American taxpayers and the Congress are rightfully worried about the deficit.  At the same time, the Department of Defense’s track record as a steward of taxpayer dollars leaves much to be desired. …

[I]t is important to remember that, as the wars recede, money will be required to reset the Army and Marine Corps, which have borne the brunt of the conflicts.  And there will continue to be long-term – and inviolable – costs associated with taking care of our troops and their families.  In other words, I do not foresee any significant increases in top-line of the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions.  At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to 6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.

Talking tough on spending has been a theme for Gates.  While much of the problems he identifies will continue to exist for years, beginning this conversation is a critical signal that will eventually — think decades — change the way the Pentagon does business. He knows this, and he also knows that this idea won’t be solved on his watch. But if he doesn’t start talking about it, who will?

If you’re looking for a good suggestion about how to buy weapons more sensibly, read Jordan Tama’s excellent Memo to the New President, where he calls for a BRAC-style commission to propose a weapons budget each year.

Gates’ whole speech is worth a read, so check it out here.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smwalton73/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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