The preliminary Defense Department budget announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on April 6 represents the most dramatic shift in US military thinking since the end of the Vietnam War. Gates merely hinted at the magnitude of the proposed changes, claiming only that he seeks to “rebalance” the department’s priorities between conventional and irregular warfare. But the message is clear: from now on, counterinsurgency and low-intensity conflict will be the military’s principal combat missions, while other tasks, such as preparing for an all-out war with a well-equipped adversary, will take a decidedly secondary role.
The budget message does not lay out this shift in broad strategic language. Rather, it is articulated in terms of the weapons systems Gates has chosen to terminate or cancel and those he has chosen to retain or augment. Most media attention has focused on the former–the big-ticket items he rightly says are no longer needed or too costly and “exquisite” to meet the Pentagon’s requirements. These include the F-22 Raptor, a $143 million supersonic jet fighter originally designed to shoot down Soviet aircraft; the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, a $3.3 billion stealth combat vessel; and the Army’s Future Combat System, an ensemble of futuristic tanks and armored vehicles.
The proposed cancellation or termination of these and other multibillion-dollar programs has provoked a firestorm of criticism from lobbyists, promilitary organizations, Congressional hawks and members of Congress whose districts will suffer manufacturing losses if the systems are cut. Major media outlets have fed the flames by portraying Gates’s overhaul as a set of massive spending cuts, even though spending would increase by 4 percent.
As the debate proceeds, the cancellations will no doubt generate most of the Congressional skirmishes and headlines. But far more important from a strategic perspective are the programs Gates wants to add or augment. These include Predator drones, sensor-equipped turboprop planes, conventional helicopters, the littoral combat ship (LCS) and expanded Special Operations capabilities–mostly low-tech systems intended for use in counterinsurgency or low-intensity environments.
These programs are far less costly than the super-sophisticated weapons Gates seeks to eliminate but far more useful, he argues, in the irregular, small-scale operations that US troops are conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan and are likely to encounter in future conflicts. “We must rebalance this department’s programs in order to institutionalize and enhance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead,” he declared.
The similarities between Gates’s proposals and the strategy adopted by the Kennedy administration are too great to ignore. Kennedy assumed office at a time when all-out war with the Soviet Union was the military’s primary concern, and he rapidly ordered a shift in focus toward unconventional conflict in the Third World. Subversive insurgency poses a new and growing threat, Kennedy declared at West Point in 1962. “It requires…a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.”