Michael Gerson

Various deficit-reduction commissions have proposed increasing the age of eligibility for military retirement pay to 57, encouraging military recruitment and retention with targeted bonuses instead of broad pay increases, and serious cost cutting in the military's Tricare health plan. "There are no sacred cows," says Gates. "Everybody knows that we're being eaten alive by health care." But this particular herd remains sacred. Spending on military benefits is an even more daunting version of the national entitlement debate. Benefits that are deserved are also not sustainable.

With the total budget of the Defense Department likely to decline marginally, and with a larger portion of that budget devoured by pensions and health care, there is likely to be serious downward pressure on research, combat systems, training, operations and maintenance. This is the source of Gates' alarm: Asking the military to do the same missions without sufficient modern equipment and training to do those missions well. "What I am really working against here," he says, "is what we did in the '70s and in the '90s, which was these across-the-board cuts that hollowed out the force."

In the decade that came between, the Reagan defense buildup produced a new generation of weapons systems that still define the force today -- Bradley fighting vehicles, Apache attack helicopters, F-15 fighters. But these platforms are old -- and now worn from use in Iraq and Afghanistan. In contrast, the large budget increases of the last decade were mainly consumed by overhead, personnel and maintenance costs. With a few exceptions such as the F-22, spending did not result in new weapons systems.

So the military needs to recover from past and continuing exertions. It also needs, according to Gates, some updated systems and capabilities -- a new refueling tanker, effective missile defenses, new generations of stealth fighters and of submarines equipped with ballistic missiles. Under these circumstances, it is not enough for politicians -- including the president -- to pull defense-cut targets out of thin air. They will need to specify which capabilities and commitments America should abandon.

This splash of cold water is Bob Gates' last official service to a nation he has served so ably.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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