Does Secretary of Defense Gates have cojones grande?

We are fools, even sheep.  Reading the newspapers provides daily proof.  For today’s example we have the Defense Department, which has avoided meaningful reform for generations by means of a simple dance step, play another round for us.  It’s only 5 steps, well able to fool simple people even when repeated many times.

  1. Plan to spend sums of money that even the entire world could not afford.
  2. Reformers arrive, making the inevitable cuts — but ensuring a moderate rate of increase in spending.
  3. Reformers also announce profound, even radical reforms (again).
  4. Continue business as usual, absorbing the “reforms” without significant effect.
  5. Repeat years later for the next generation.

And so the play is performed yet again, this time with Secretary Gates as the hero.  Even the always insightful Zenpundit is fooled (which shows the power of this simple drama).  But you cannot fool all the people all of the time.  The DoD two-step is by now familiar to critics (such as Winslow Wheeler), if not to the sheep in the stalls.  The following reports rip the veil aside to show the harsh underlying reality (see excepts of these below)

  1. Obama, Gates Agree on Defense Budget Increase“, Spencer Ackerman, 18 February 2009
  2. Media Reports Major Defense Budget Cuts As Obama Proposes Increase In Defense Budget“, Brian Beutler, Talking Points Memo (TPM), 7 April 2009
  3. Pentagon Pushes Weapon Cuts“, Wall Street Journal, 7 April 2009 — The key fact is buried.
  4. A Tempered View of Gates’ Budget Cutbacks“, Winslow T. Wheeler. Center for Defense Information, 7 April 2009

For more information:


(1)  Obama, Gates Agree on Defense Budget Increase“, Spencer Ackerman, 18 February 2009 — Excerpt:

Remember earlier this month, when the White House’s Office of Management and Budget told the Pentagon to cap its forthcoming fiscal 2010 budget at $527 billion, excluding the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – an increase from the $513 billion appropriated in the final year of the Bush administration? But because the figure was lower than a $584 billion Bush-era Pentagon wishlist for fiscal 2010, people started portraying the increase as a cut? Well, Josh Rogin at Congressional Quarterly reports (behind a firewall, alas) that OMB and the Pentagon have agreed to an even greater increase: $537 billion for the coming fiscal year.

“The new topline figure is $10 billion greater than guidance President Obama’s administration gave to the Pentagon only last month. The increase reflects the effort to incorporate some items previously found in supplemental war funding budgets, the sources said, but does not cover the cost of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will still require additional funding above the base request next fiscal year.”

A bunch of defense-budget experts observe to Rogin that the Obama administration doesn’t want to be accused of being soft on defense. But that would presume its adversaries are interested in intellectual honesty, which this budget debate has demonstrated to be a faulty premise. … That’s just how these debates go.

(2)  Media Reports Major Defense Budget Cuts As Obama Proposes Increase In Defense Budget“, Brian Beutler, Talking Points Memo (TPM), 7 April 2009 — Excerpt:

The big news from yesterday (still settling in across Washington) is that President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates teamed up to propose a sweeping overhaul of the defense budget–calling for the elimination of unnecessary systems and spending the savings on special forces, intelligence equipment, and other tools of counterinsurgent warfare.

In other words, by retooling the Pentagon, Obama and Gates plan to move a lot of money around, but they also plan to increase the overall defense budget. In the final year of the Bush administration (and excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) the defense budget was $513 billion. In FY 2010, if Gates and Obama get their way, it will be $534 billion–$534 billion that will be spent much differently than last year’s outlays were.

But you’d never know that from the news coverage.

(3)  Pentagon Pushes Weapon Cuts“, Wall Street Journal, 7 April 2009 — The key fact is buried.

Mr. Gates’s proposed baseline 2010 Defense Department budget of $534 billion is up 4% from last year. But it signals a major departure from business as usual at the Pentagon, with a heavy emphasis on overhauling a procurement process that he and congressional leaders have decried as being too heavily influenced by powerful contractors.

… Defense stocks rallied after the budget announcement …

(4)  A Tempered View of Gates’ Budget Cutbacks“, Winslow T. Wheeler. Cenet for Defense Information, 7 April 2009 — Excerpt:

While Washington, D.C. hisses and spits over the secretary’s hardware recommendations, it is probably more important to ask, what has changed, and if anything has, where are we now going?

It does not appear that the basic DOD budget has changed; this set of decisions may be budget neutral, or it may even hold in its future expanded net spending requirements.

We have not changed an anticipation to prepare for occupations in foreign lands (the advocates call it “counterinsurgency”), or to continue to spend most of our defense budget on forms of conventional warfare most reminiscent of the mid-20th century. To fight the indistinct, unspecified conflicts we may have to face in the foreseeable future, what has changed? The strategy? The shrinkage of the hardware inventory and its age? While many decisions were made, the Pentagon-ship of state appears to be very much on the same basic course.

For the Defense Department’s broken acquisition system, the secretary’s endorsement of the Levin – McCain “procurement reform” bill (now watered down at the Defense Department’s urging) means that business as usual is very alive and well. There will be some new bottles for some very old wine, but the bitterness of the taste will still be around as we rush to build untested aircraft (e.g. F-35), endorse problematic, unaffordable ship designs (e.g. LCS), and spend generously to defend against less, not more likely, threats (e.g. missile defense).

For one set of decisions, even if they are unspectacular, Secretary Gates deserves much good credit. He made people his first priority. Hopefully, that was not just rhetorical. The emphasis he put on medical research, caring for the wounded, and family support are all to be greatly commended. I fear, however, that Congress will do little more on this prime issue than simply throw money – as it has in the past.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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For more information

Essential reading for anyone interested in the condition of our military:

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Some posts about Secretary of Defense Gates:

  1. Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD, 6 May 2008
  2. I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008

About the defense budget:

  1. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  2. A neverending story: DoD’s attempts to stop cooking the books, 2 May 2008
  3. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
  4. America’s Defense Meltdown, now avilable for free download, 20 November 2008
  5. “What’s wrong with the US military?”, an interview with Winslow Wheeler, 10 December 2008
  6. The economic Death Spiral of the Pentagon, 7 February 2009

13 thoughts on “Does Secretary of Defense Gates have cojones grande?”

  1. “Even the always insightful Zenpundit is fooled (which shows the power of this simple drama). But you cannot fool all the people all of the time. The DoD two-step is now familiar to critics (such as Winslow Wheeler)”

    Well, perhaps we should bear in mind that Gates is Secretary of Defense, not King Robert I. Nor will anything Gates proposes ever match what Winslow Wheeler would do if he could design the defense budget himself via deus ex machina.

    Secretary Gates has a major say but not the final word here but with that major say, Gates has acted with greater boldness than I recall in other SecDefs. Even when the defense budget has been cut sharply in past decades, it was more a hollowing out than making realistic choices between major weapons systems. Without Gates, Obama would have followed the same “safe” political course of action as in the 90’s, cutting defense appropriations for spare parts, training, logistics, intelligence and shrinking forces, shifting more burdens to the Guard/Reserve while spending lavishly on complex weapons systems designed to fight the USSR.

    Will the iron triangle fight back? Yep. They’ll win some too but not on everything. And they’ll get less of their way than if Gates simply resembled his predecessors and rolled over.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I did not say anyone else could do better, but that …
    (1) Gates is not cutting the defense budget (a big part of this media blitz),
    (2) nor is this a major reform in any substantive sense.

    As for bold Secretaries of Defense, we’ve had many. At least as seen in the press clippings during their time in office. DoD has played the Washington two-step from the years of Robert Strange McNamera to Rumsfeld. Big changes in procurement, cancel a few big-ticket programs (there are so many, always a few that can be pruned) — and the game continues for another decade.

    It’s sad that the last media blitz about a transformational SecDef was only 7 years ago, as seen in articles like this.
    * He cancelled the Crusader and Comanche helicopter
    * Redeployed our forces from Germany and South Korea to areas.
    * Gave the Special Operations Command greater authority to fight terrorists.
    * Created Northern Command to coordinate homeland defense.
    * Strengthen Joint Forces Command to better integrate the services.
    * Pushed the Army to make the brigade the “basic unit of action.”
    * and forced the Services for focus on new tech (e.g., drones).

    And yet we need another fix less than a decade later. As we spin down the Defense Death Spiral, these fake transformations must come more frequently.

    For more on this read America’s Defense Meldown.

  2. I tend to side with Zen Pundit here. Sometimes insightful Fabius Maximus appears to have been fooled by virtue of never having lived in the real world. That can happen to academics and professional pundits who never worked for a living.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I suggest continuing your Padawan training, as your mastery of the Force is not yet that of a true Jedi. This is not the site of a “professional pundit”, as I obviously receive no pay for running it. Nor am I an academic.

    Zenpundit’s reply was IMO missing the point, as I indicated above. I did not say that anyone else could have done better under these circumstances, but rather the press coverage was inaccurate — and that this is part of a long-time pattern of faux reform in the DoD.

  3. While I agree with Zenpundit that the focus on “people” as opposed to “rods from god” should take precedent, I think the larger point is that spending more on the military than the rest of the world combined (or whatever the figure is) is not sustainable as our percentage of world wealth declines and, in any event, is a waste of money justified as preparation for an existential threat that doesn’t exist. With all that spending, we still cannot beat an insurgency, because the actual cost of doing so, mass murder of civilians (beyond what is committed through airstrikes), is based in moral currency, not defense budget appropriations. It seems like a more realistic view of national interest would place far less emphasis on hard power as opposed to soft. However, it does not seem like “national interest” is the goal. Building billion dollar a pop Raptors is.

  4. A re-occurring point mentioned by Zemtar above and by Fabius Maximus is this notion that our defense spending is not sustainable. Depending on whether one includes DOD baseline spending, supplemental spending, & the DOE budget, the percentage of GDP for the military hovers between 4% and 8%, a percentage range that is average in cold war spending. This is significant to note because sustainability of any government budget is based off the collection of tax revenue, which is concretely linked to GDP. As our economy grows, defense spending in real dollars can also grow without issue. Concerned commentators only have to look at the federal government’s mandatory spending obligation from medicare/medicaid, and social security in the coming years to see that the issues of military spending sustainability pale in comparison to behemoth of the promises we’ve made to our soon to be retired baby boomer generation.

  5. This is significant to note because sustainability of any government budget is based off the collection of tax revenue, which is concretely linked to GDP.

    No, the sustainability of any government is based upon its collection of revenue from whatever source.

    In the case of the United States federal government, much of this revenue comes not from taxes but is borrowed from foreign governments – particularly the Chinese, who have been making unpleasant noises lately and have no apparent reason to favor US military spending.

    For a parallel situation, consider the 1956 Suez crisis, where the United States, which then was a creditor, used its economic clout to force England to back off.
    Fabius Maximus replies: His remark was based on common assumptions in such discussions — borrowing not considered “revenue”, and is inherently unsustainable.

    “much of this revenue comes not from taxes but is borrowed from foreign governments”

    It is not correct that “much” of the US Federal government’s cash spending is borrowed. The deficit runs from 3 – 7%/year (from memory); it was aprox 4% in 2004. Now, of course, it is zooming out of control — but increasingy funded from domestic sources. The US trade deficit usually declines during recessions, making us less dependent on foreign borrowing.

  6. The DOD “two-step” is as old as politics, and not limited to the defense industry, though one has to admit they have the game down to a science. The system is set up so that the house (i.e. the military-industrial-political-media complex) always wins. Elected officials can choose either of two politically tenable positions, being a defense ‘hawk’ or being a ‘dove;’ as both play well in the press. The former denounce defense ‘cuts’ which are not spending decreases at all but merely smaller increases in the budget. The latter can denounce out-of-control military spending, and point to ‘cuts’ in spending which are nothing of the kind. The generals and senior colonels – the “perfumed princes” get promoted and/or decorated for ‘successful’ procurement projects, politicians get to please their momentarily-distracted constituents long enough for them to return to watching “American Idol,” the defense contractors get their lavish contracts, and the politicians get their kickbacks and campaign contributions. When spending abuses come to light, the media get to write their stories and sell papers, and the academics can get in on the action writing learned and sombre post-mortems on what went wrong. Happy times all around, everyone makes some money. And the best part of all, the kicker that really warms an old pol’s heart, is that when this Frankenstein of a system fails to fulfill its missions, or does so at too high a cost, it justifies further reforms, and of course further spending. It’s a fiscal and political perpetual motion machine, as long as the supply of easily-duped voters and tax dollars doesn’t run out.

    The tragedy of the system is that there are at least two unrepresented constituencies in this scenario, the everyday taxpayer too ‘busy’ to pay attention to happenings in the defense establishment, and the grunt down in the mud, who is committed to battle with a primary weapon that fails during combat (as the AR-15/M-16 did in Vietnam), insufficient or outdated body armor or Hum-vees (“Soldiers for the Truth” Foundation has documented this issue extensively on their website, vis-a-vis Dragonskin body armor and its military-issued counterparts), or is otherwise lacking in the bullets-and-beans needed to win and survive. The taxpayer pays for the current system in dollars, the front-line soldier in blood.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for noting that this system is not unique to defense. As we have seen lately, it is just as strongly entrenched in the financial sector.

  7. To me the interesting question in this situation is, if it is fixable, what would it take? It’s extremely difficult is my first reaction.

    The reason is, in certain areas, significant reform could happen simply by taking the money out of politics. For example, if the individuals and corporations in finance could not make significant political donations, and if all such lobbies were banned from contact with Congress and the Executive, a lot of the incentive for politicians to ‘play ball’ with them would disappear.

    The problem with ‘defense’ spending is that it involves manufacturing, working-class jobs, and is strategically spread out across states and congressional districts. This means that even if all the political reforms possible were made, there would still be very strong incentives for, let us say, senators and congressmen from Connecticut to vote for unnecessary submarines, and those from California and San Diego to vote for unnecessary aircraft carriers, and there would be significant constituent backing for same, all for reasons of simple employment, ability to feed one’s family.

    This conundrum is variant #maxint of the eternal dealmaking between dominant human primates and their follower masses to negotiate the terms of their oppression, which has gone on from time immemorial and is common to tyrants, hereditary kings, emperors, prime ministers and Presidents. Our Republic has British roots, and grafting democracy atop them did not alter this basic biomechanism. In essence we bargain with our rulers over the percentage we get of our own enslavement.

    What does seem obvious to me is that deep systemic reform would have to happen, in essence transforming at least part of the nature of capitalism itself. There is a core conflict between the materialist profit motive (which is endemic, and cannot be legislated away), and the interests of the body politic. We would therefore need to begin to make distinctions between those matters that are essential to group survival (health care, energy, national defense, just to name three) and those that are not (entertainment, fashion, etc.). And we would have to figure out a way, such that the profit motive would not interfere with or drive the activities in the first category, in the knowledge that otherwise, we will end up cannibalizing our own future. There is no such thing as equal priority, or a free lunch.

    Figure out how to make that one work and you’ve got something. Till then, it’s all sound and fury, signifying a lot but accomplishing… you know the rest.

  8. Perhaps this is more an increase in the stimulus that an increase in the defense budget. Keeping people employed is the goal right now.

    What worries me more…what are they going to do with this money? More space weapons to counter the threat from Mars? Or bring home the troops, and stock up on ammo, which is what we really need.

    Heard on NPR this morning, some State department guy talking about more aid for Pakistan, not military, but general, economic aid, to help Pakistan out. Seems like a good use of money.

  9. The economists at econospeak have a thread on the “price deflator” of the “defense sector” being far more than the general economy since 2000. This is largely due to the Bush/GWOT mobilization. The percent GDP in one measure has risen from little over 2% to 4%. There is an acquisition bow wave, too. See GAO 09 543T. This means a 4% rise in FY 10 DOD, much of it to MIL PERS, is an issue which will dry up many pet projects. That the price deflator has been so high reflects the MICC soviet in congress, plundering the US economy (some of it China’s).

    When “entitlements” enter along with non MICC discretionary spending the debate becomes whom is cut to keep the US economy growing?
    FM note: the GAO 09 543t report mentioned is “DEFENSE ACQUISITIONS – Measuring the Value of DOD’s Weapon Programs Requires Starting with Realistic Baselines“, 1 April 2009 — Excerpt from its conclusions, to give a taste of its findings:

    (1) … By applying these metrics to selected programs in DOD’s 2008 portfolio of major defense acquisitions, GAO found that most programs have started system development without mature technologies and moved into system demonstration with low levels of design stability. GAO has determined that programs with immature technologies and unstable designs have experienced significant cost and schedule growth.

    (2) … The collective performance of the programs in DOD’s portfolio is a key indicator of how well the acquisition system generates the return on investment that it promises to the warfighter, Congress and taxpayers. GAO recently reported that outcome metrics for DOD’s 2008 major defense acquisition portfolio show worsening performance when compared to the department’s 2003 portfolio. For example, total acquisition costs for programs in the 2008 portfolio increased 25% from first estimates compared to a 19% increase for programs in the 2003 portfolio.

  10. another recent article on the new budget which goes into its COIN-enhancing implications: “Gates’ budget shakes up the Pentagon“, By Daniel Luban and Ali Gharib, Asia Times, 8 April 2009.
    Fabius Maximus replies: We must be starved for news that each round of this game generates so much attention. We certainly have anmesia (or Alzheimer’s), since almost all this chatter ignores the many previous rounds of this game — as if this were the very first Defense Reform. Golly!

  11. Re Xiaodings comment ..” general economic aid , to help Pakistan out .. ” On the BBc website tonight is a video clip on travelling with the Taliban somewhere in Pakistan . ( sorry , I dont know how to post the link .) There are lots of men with guns . They are occupied in the globally popular male passtimes of standing about , chatting ; sitting about , noshing ; and driving about in 4 x 4 s. Nowhere is there a sight of anyone doing any work , any attempts at agriculture or water entrapment , or any females . Goodness knows where they get the money to fund this lifestyle , I hope its not ” aid ” .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I’ll bet a camera crew could follow you around for a few days and get 20 minutes of film showing you doing no work. Folks in Afghanistan could watch that and wonder about American women.

  12. Yet somehow, our defense forces look completely different than our war-making forces back in, say 1865. So maybe there is some constructive change going on! Still, cutting missile defense was a really boneheaded move.

  13. If he really had stones he’d propose something truly radical like reorienting the military towards its core mission! We are projecting so much power everywhere yet 4 barbaresque pirates off the coast of somalia are making us look weak.

    Bring the army home, put it on the border with mexico. If we need to project power overseas, by ourselves, use the marines, socom, navy and air force. Don’t deploy the army overseas again unless some of Mr. Barnett’s ‘core nations’ also contribute half the boots on the ground.

    America will never succeed as an occupying force as long as we a) are forced to shoulder more than half the burden and b) continue to refuse to completely lay waste to a country as we did Japan and Germany (I am not suggesting we do that to Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan).

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