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The Good and Bad of Gates’s Agenda

I haven’t commented yet on Bob Gates’s new defense agenda because I’ve been ambivalent about it. I still am, even after having just gotten off a conference call between the defense secretary and some writers.

He proposed many initiatives that make sense. These include spending an extra $2 billion on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities including 50 new Predator-class unmanned aerial vehicles; $500 million more for helicopter operations; and $500 million for training and equipping foreign militaries to fight our mutual enemies. Other valuable increases include more Special Operations Forces, more cyberwarfare specialists, and more Littoral Combat Ships that are especially useful for operations such as hunting pirates and terrorists.

I am also amenable to some of the cuts he proposed. I have never been convinced of the need to buy both the F-22 and F-35, so I think Gates made a perfectly defensible decision to stop buying more F-22s while increasing and speeding up the acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I am also concerned that future Navy ships are ruinously expensive and too vulnerable to low-cost missiles, so his decision to delay the Navy’s CG-X program to develop the next-generation cruiser makes sense. So too I applaud his decision to end the VH-71 helicopter, designed for use by the president, which had become a gold-plated monstrosity.

Gates described his decision to halt and restructure the Army’s Future Combat System as the hardest call he had to make (he said he didn’t reach a final decision until this weekend), but I believe it was the right call. The conceit behind the FCS program — that a single line of lightly armored vehicles could meet all the needs of the army in the future — was always questionable. The army placed too much faith in perfect “battlespace awareness” without sufficiently incorporating the lessons learned about fighting low-end enemies in places like Iran and Afghanistan.  Now those lessons can be more effectively integrated and different types of vehicles can be designed for different needs in the future.

Those are the positives. But from my perspective there are also some negatives.

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