The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

SecDef to Military: Buy weapons you can use


May 13, 2008

In a clear case of what would be called stating the obvious if it were said by the leader of any other organization other than the Pentagon,

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued a clear warning to the military and its industrial partners on Tuesday that expensive, new conventional weapons must prove their value to current conflicts, marked by insurgency and terrorism, if they hope for a place in future budgets.

because the headline “Gates Wants Weapons Useful in Current Conflicts” sure sounds obvious to me.

More Gates:

“I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called ‘Next-War-itis’ — the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict…. Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.”

Its hard to miss the clear reference to mega-programs like the F-22–billions of dollars for a next-generation air superiority fighter that is all but useless in the conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan, or the whole GWOT (honorable mention might also be the Army’s FCS or any number of Navy ships).

Rob at LGM has done some excellent posting on recent Air Force tomfoolery. As Rob has documented, this is not the first time Gates has called out the services on spending and mission priorities.

I think, though, two elements of the speech and NYT report are notable above and beyond the trends Rob has pointed out.

1. Gates’ neologism of “Next-War-itis.” The military has long used the fear / threat of a future war with a peer competitor (read China–for an example, see here) to justify weapons acquisitions programs. This new rhetorical commonplace (dap to ptj) opens a space to challenge that narrative (by ridicule) and legitimate a different set of policies, programs, and budget priorities. Buying the FCS or F-22 is ‘Next-War-itis’ while the MRAP or a Predator is the weapon we need today and will probably need tomorrow as well.

2. The lead of the article notes that Gates was speaking to “the military and its industrial partners.” As is well known, the services are supported by a fantastic lobbying organization known as the Military Industrial Complex. While the Army or Air Force can’t officially lobby Congress to insert yet another plane or tank into the budget that wasn’t requested, the military contractors have no problem making that case. Any reform in military acquisitions will necessarily involve dealing with those who build the stuff, and Gates is letting them know that they too are On Notice.

As a friend of mine might say, you wonder if a Democrat could get away with saying these things….

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.