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Defense cuts must be prioritized and strategic, Secretary Gates says

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he is determined that the department not fall victim to the mistakes of the past, “where the budget targets were met mostly by taking a percentage off the top of everything, the simplest and most politically expedient approach both inside the Pentagon and outside of it.”

“That kind of ‘salami-slicing’ approach preserves overhead and maintains force structure on paper, but results in a hollowing-out of the force from a lack of proper training, maintenance and equipment -- and manpower,” Gates said during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research here today. “That is what happened in the 1970s -- a disastrous period for our military -- and to a lesser extent during the late 1990s.”

In delivering his last major policy speech during his tenure as defense secretary, Gates laid out the department’s cost saving initiatives over the past few years, and outlined what he expects from a comprehensive review he launched last week.

Gates said the review should ensure that future spending decisions are focused on priorities, strategy and risks, and are not simply a math and accounting exercise.

“In the end, this process must be about identifying options for the president and the Congress, to ensure the nation consciously acknowledges and accepts additional risk in exchange for reduced investment in the Department of Defense,” Gates said.

Gates said the analysis will include going places that have been avoided politically in the past, such as re-examining military compensation levels, retirement, pay and pensions and spiraling health care costs.

The review also will examine force structure -- the military’s fighting formations such as Army brigades, Marine expeditionary units, Air Force wings, Navy ships and supporting aviation assets.

“The overarching goal will be to preserve a U.S. military capable of meeting crucial national security priorities even if fiscal pressure requires reductions in that force’s size,” Gates said.

“I’ve said repeatedly that I’d rather have a smaller, superbly capable military then a larger, hollow, less capable one. However, we need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people, indeed with ourselves, about what those consequences are -- that a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things,” he said.

Gates said that in considering cuts, some assumptions that historically have been used to guide defense funding should be questioned.

For example, the assumption behind most military planning since the end of the Cold War has been that the United States must be able to fight two major regional wars at the same time.

“One might conclude the odds of that contingency are sufficiently low, or that any eruption of conflicts would happen one after the other, not simultaneously,” the secretary said. “What are the implications of that with respect to force structure, and what are the risks? One can assume certain things won’t happen on account of their apparently low probability.

“But the enemy always has a vote,” Gates added.

Still, those are the kinds of scenarios the department and U.S. officials need to consider, he said.

“If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military, people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country, as well as for the variety of military operations we have around the world if lower priority missions are scaled back or eliminated,” Gates said.

American needs to understand that a smaller pool of forces could mean greater impacts on troops and families, should the United States find itself in another protracted war.

“To shirk this discussion of risks and consequences -- and the hard decisions that must follow -- I would regard as managerial cowardice,” Gates said.

In the end, the secretary said, the tough choices ahead are about the kind of role the American people -- accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades -- want their country to play in the world.

“Since I entered government 45 years ago, I’ve shifted my views and changed my mind on a good many things as circumstances, new information, or logic dictated. But I have yet to see evidence that would dissuade me from this fundamental belief -- that America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet,” Gates said.

“I share Winston Churchill’s belief, that ‘The price of greatness is responsibility … [and] the people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.’ This status provides enormous benefits -- for allies, partners, and others abroad to be sure, but in the final analysis the greatest beneficiaries are the American people, in terms of our security, our prosperity, our freedom,” Gates said.

Gates acknowledged that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war.

“But there is no doubt in my mind that the continued strength and global reach of the American military will remain the greatest deterrent against aggression, and the most effective means of preserving peace in the 21st century, as it was in the 20th,” he said.

Secretary Gates will be speaking at the SDA in Brussels on June 10, 2011 on "Reflections on the status and future of the transatlantic alliance"

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