For years the debate has raged within and outside the US military on whether the US should focus on this war or the next big fight. The “this war” crowd argues that not only does the US need to focus on the current warfighting requirements, but that the future security scenarios will consist of the US being engaged in nation-building and stabilization operations for decades to come. The “next war” fans usually argue that while the current fights are certainly important, one should not forget that near peer competitors can rise fast, and that if America lost its conventional military edge that in itself would be another enticement for foreign nations to challenge the US militarily.


The debate has ebbed and flowed over the years, with the “this war” argument holding sway since it became apparent that the US was in serious trouble in Iraq. The “next war” crowd saw a resurgence after the Russian invasion of Georgia, when it seemed apparent that state-on-state war had not completely disappeared from the world stage.

Pentagon Spending Priorities

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came down decidedly on the “this war” side of the debate yesterday when he announced the Pentagon’s FY10 budget. 

While Gates’ budget would actually increase defense spending by $11 billion, it contains a lot of bad news for some of the big contractors. Among other things, the F-22 Raptor project would be capped at around 180 aircraft; the Army’s incredibly complex, and expensive, Future Combat System project would lose its main ground vehicle; and President Obama will have to make do with his current fleet of Sea King helicopters to ferry him around. Missile defense took another big hit, with a reduction of over a $1 billion. Some big tickets were left in, such as the Air Force’s new tanker, along with more Littoral Combat Ships for the Navy. But the former is needed to maintain America’s ability to project air power around the world, and the Littoral Combat Ships are seen as needed platforms to support counter-insurgency operations close to shore.

On the other hand, more money will be available for growing the end strength of the Army and Marine Corps, the two services under most strain from repeated combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as expanding US Special Operations forces. Gates is also pushing ahead with several Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance (ISR) initiatives that have proven to be extremely helpful in the current counter-insurgency fights, chief among them adding more Predator and Reaper UAVs to the military’s inventory.

The focus here is clearly in not only supporting current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also preparing the US military for putting boots on the ground in messy situations in bad parts of the world to fight insurgents and provide stability in the decades to come.

Why it Matters

While Gates’ envisioned changes in spending priorities seem sane enough, one should not make any mistake in believing that this is not a strategic choice with some associated costs. History is littered with nations who made strategic choices that turned out to be wrong. The British focused on “small wars” after their experiences in the Boer War, only to run up against massed German infantry with artillery and machine guns in the trenches of the western front during World War I. Little indicates that we are any better at predicting the future today than the British at the turn of the century. But resources are limited, even for a super power that spends close to half of the world’s total defense expenditures, and hard choices have to be made.

Gates’ new budget does of course not signal the US military’s abdication of its position as the premier conventional fighting force in the world. Military power is a combination of technology, command and control, training, leadership, support, and logistics, and while the US may not spend as much on high-end technology (like the F-22 or the Future Combat System) in the near future, the US still holds the edge in the other aspects of military power. For example, both Russia and China have aircraft carriers, but cannot be said to have a real carrier capability, since they are lacking in training, command and control, and support systems and architecture. Carrier operations across the globe are, on the other hand, very much routine activities for the US.

Of course, none of this is set in stone. Congress is notorious for saving projects that have come under fire from the administration. While Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were Pentagon chiefs only two major programs were cancelled – the Comanche attack helicopter under Cheney, and the Crusader artillery system under Rumsfeld. And no one can claim that Cheney and Rumsfeld were weak willed defense secretaries. In addition, Congressional members may be especially sensitive to losing well paying jobs in their districts in these times of economic hardship around the country.

Gates’ budget is a fine attempt at reseting the Pentagon, transforming the way it does business, and making sure money is spent on what the US needs for its national defense. However, this isn’t finished, and we should expect counterattacks from Congress, industry, and other groups in the coming months. For all we know, the world itself could throw Gates’ for a loop. It’s happened before.

 Magnus Nordenman is associate director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.

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