Gates recommended sweeping changes in military retirement rules and increases in co-payments and premiums in the Tricare health care system for military retirees -- changes that he admitted will encounter fierce institutional and political resistance. Otherwise, increasingly large chunks of defense spending will go to things that don't improve military capabilities.
All of which is dismaying to hear from an experienced and knowledgeable defense secretary in his fifth years in office. One of the problems of any successful military establishment -- or, really, of any longstanding bureaucracy -- is that it becomes encrusted by enormous dysfunctional barnacles which make it increasingly difficult to cruise ahead on its appointed missions. Pretty enormous barnacles, to hear Gates tell it, and really hard to scrape off.
In his memoir "From the Shadows," written after he left the CIA directorship in 1993, Gates likened the U.S. national security apparatus to a giant ship that changes course only with great difficulty and much less sharply from one administration to another than suggested by political rhetoric.
In that context, his speech last week sounded almost like a throwing up of hands. He accepted without demur the current president's top-line limits on defense spending, and he acknowledged that he is leaving hugely difficult challenges for his successors. He noted that over the last 30 years we have never once predicted in advance where our military forces will be engaged -- there will always be plenty of what his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld called unknown unknowns.
"The American military will remain the greatest deterrent against aggression and the most effective means of preserving peace," he insisted. But at best it will be "a smaller, superbly capable military" that "will be able to go to fewer places and be able to do fewer things."
An optimistic vision of the future, but a scarily modest one.