The United States must put its finances in order to retain its global leadership</SUBHEAD>
<BODY>For two years, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been trying to get ahead of what he correctly perceived would be the inevitable rationalization of military spending in an era of fiscal austerity. First he went after wasteful weapons systems, halting production of advanced warplanes, ships and other hardware that would have cost $300 billion if completed. Last year he attacked the Pentagon bureaucracy, ordering cuts in contractors and intelligence agencies and the closure of the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk; in all, he asked the services to find $100 billion in savings over five years. The idea was to apply the saved funds to pressing new priorities, so that the overall defense budget would continue to increase by a modest amount each year.
Mr. Gates did not quite get his wish. Under White House pressure, he has agreed to cut another $78 billion from planned defense spending over the next five years. Under the new strategy he laid out this month, the budget would flatten out in real terms by the middle of the decade. The announcement quickly brought squawks from hawkish Republicans, who claimed the administration was gutting defense, and from liberals, who said the Pentagon should make a far larger contribution to reducing the deficit.
In its broad outlines, however, Mr. Gates' plan looks well-grounded. It would invest in capabilities that are rapidly growing in importance for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan, such as drones and other aerial vehicles, while canceling or cutting back on systems whose relevance to 21st-century conflicts has become questionable, such as a wildly expensive new amphibious landing ship. Mr. Gates would invest in weapons that hedge against China's military buildup, such as a new long-range bomber and systems that defend ships from missiles.
At the same time Mr. Gates proposes to slash personnel costs that Congress has inexcusably allowed to inflate beyond all reason. Military families, for example, have not faced an increase in health-care premiums in 15 years; the basic health plan costs $460 per year, while a civilian federal worker pays more than $5,000 for a comparable program. Mr. Gates would modestly bump up premiums for working-age retirees and index them to medical inflation.
Perhaps the most risky cut that the plan proposes is in active-duty troops. Beginning in 2015, the Army, which now numbers 569,000, would be reduced by 27,000 soldiers, and the Marines, now at 202,000, would be cut by 15,000 to 20,000. This trim, which would still leave the two forces with roughly 50,000 more people than they had in 2006, looks logical if U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan end as planned in 2014. But it's too early to know whether the administration's war strategy there will work - or if other conflicts will be forced on the country by an unstable world.
What's certain is the United States must put its finances in order to retain its global leadership and its ability to project power. Mr. Gates told PBS' Jim Lehrer that his aim is to "show those who are interested in protecting defense that we have done that, and those who think that defense ought to contribute to reducing the deficit that we have done that as well." That's the right goal, and he's made a good start.