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Defense Budget: Showdown at the Pentagon

Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Defense Secretary Robert Gates: A Guy Whose Job I Don't Want

Appointed by a Republican president, serving in a Democratic administration. That’s quite an accomplishment for anyone.  As if that hasn’t burnished his credentials enough, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in the middle of picking a fight (or many, many fights) with just about everyone.  Here’s a short list of the aggrieved:   

  • Veteran’s Groups
  • Defense Industry Lobbyists
  • Capitol Hill
  • The Pentagon Bureaucracy
  • My Grandma, my little sister, and even my puppy, who growled at Gates on CNN last night

In all seriousness, this has been coming for quite a while now.  Some of the best thinkers out there saw this coming a mile away, and most of the experts I’ve spoken to were pretty confident that we were in for this fight no matter who won the last presidential election.  The red ink we’ve got across the board in the US is not going to go away on its own, and the Executive branch is looking for any way it can to contain ballooning budget deficits.   

The good news?  It looks as though the Obama administration is looking to avoid a repeat of the 1990’s, when military readiness was impacted by big shifts in the budget.  The noises coming from the corner office at the Pentagon seem to emphasize the status quo when it comes to force structure, which is a net positive.    

The bad news?  Well, there’s plenty.  Military pay has seen huge escalation over the last decade, and Congress shows no signs of stopping the steep increases.  These costs are starting to add up, leading some in the Pentagon to worry about how long they can keep this up.  Another major cost driver is the ever escalating price tag for health care.  The Pentagon’s Tricare program is shoveling out huge amounts of cash to cover our healthcare obligations to current and former service members, and the costs just keep heading north. On top of this, major weapons systems acquisitions are still an unholy mess.  The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is getting more expensive by the hour, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has seen substantial cost growth of its own.  That’s not to mention the hundreds of other acquisitions that are busting cost and schedule milestones.   

Underlying all of this is something you should keep in mind: nearly everyone who thinks about these things for a living saw this coming.  That doesn’t mean these fights aren’t going to be ugly and acrimonious, but they are going to follow a very predictable script.  Many SECDEF’s in the past have tried to reform the Pentagon…I think you know how that went.  Here’s my prediction: It’s going to be one long summer for Robert Gates.  You can take that one to the bank.

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