Fred Kaplan has another excellent column addressing the cuts that SecDef Gates wants to make in the defense budget. The basic point is that Gates is trying to change how the Pentagon operates but not really cut spending much. Gates wants to change the culture, trying to reduce the number of expensive senior officers, reduce reliance on contractors (woo hoo!) and so forth, and shift savings towards procurement. That is: reduce overhead and get more stuff. Kaplan notes that this is probably unsustainable in a time of deep budget deficits where the military is really the heart of the non-mandatory spending. Kaplan almost makes it seem that Gates is fooling himself into thinking that smaller but steady growth in the defense budget is likely. Perhaps. Or perhaps Gates is cutting the overhead before he is compelled to cut further into the procurement side of things.
It is clear that Gates is serious about buying stuff that is necessary and no more. He is already running into heaps of opposition for cutting F-22 engines from the shopping list and for other cuts, but I don't think Gates is unrealistic. The defense budget is going to have to go down. It is just too big at a time where deficits are too big and the foreign threats are relatively small. The US is spending way more than the rest of the world. Some of the budget declines will occur "naturally" as the Iraq mission goes away, but we are stuck in Afghanistan for a few more years. So, the US will have to really re-think how many subs it needs, how many carriers it needs, and so forth. The number of brigades may be less likely to be cut given how stretched the Army is right now, as the past decade has taught us that war is still labor intensive, revolution in military affairs be damned.
But Kaplan is right, basic questions will need to be asked--what do we need, how many do we need, what tradeoffs need to be faced. Gates is right--the era of endless money is at an end.