In a series of speeches over the past few days - at Notre Dame, at the American Enterprise Institute and at the Naval Academy - the outgoing Secretary of Defense has sounded a series of warnings that the ship of state, or at least the carrier battle group that protects it, is headed for the rocks.
That is surely so. But, welcome as his alarm is, the course is one Mr. Gates has largely charted himself. Of late, President Obama has simply ordered "full steam ahead," with encouragement from some in both parties on Capitol Hill.
Secretary Gates has particularly warned against a "hollowing out" of the military, a not-so-implicit criticism of the $400 billion Mr. Obama has announced that he intends to cut from Pentagon accounts. This reduction would come on top of the roughly $178 billion already being excised by the Gates team.
In so doing, Mr. Gates recalls the mistake made twice during my decades in this town - first by Presidents Ford and Carter, then by Presidents Bush '41 and Clinton: Yielding to the ever-present-temptation to meet contemporary budgetary exigencies by cutting the nation's investment in its armed forces, leaving them without the modern equipment, realistic training, adequately sized forces, up-to-date facilities and development of the future technologies needed to deter and, if deterrence fails, to prevail in tomorrow's wars.
It took an immensely expensive buildup under Ronald Reagan to rectify the first of these perilous mistakes. Thanks in part to the Gates legacy, the second has still not been remedied. The effect has been to condemn the armed services - currently in the midst of three far-flung military campaigns - to an unwise and unsustainable reliance for the foreseeable future on obsolescing tanks, ships, aircraft and missiles purchased during the Reagan years (if not before).
A couple of examples illustrate the problem we already have, let alone what will come if President Obama has his way:
In his recent speeches, Secretary Gates has emphasized the need to modernize the military's various air forces with the F-35, a "stealthy" fifth-generation aircraft that has run into production delays and increased costs. The risks associated with the attendant slowing-down of deliveries of this plane have been greatly compounded by Mr. Gates' insistence on the premature shutting down of the production line for the far more capable F-22 - one of 30 Pentagon modernization programs he has eviscerated.
The effect of falling for the old bird-in-the-bush gambit was predictable (and predicted): They are never as good, cheap or readily available as we are told they will be. Worse yet, as the Washington Times' Bill Gertz reported in his "Inside the Ring" column last week, senior officers are now warning that, as a result, we are ominously ill-prepared to contend with growing challenges to our historic air superiority from Communist China.
Mr. Gates says President Obama's projected cuts will preclude the modernization of two legs of our strategic "Triad." For those who share the Commander-in-Chief's zeal for the U.S. leading the way to "a world without nuclear weapons," the accelerating atrophying of our land-based missile and bomber forces is not only of no concern; it is a desirable thing. For the rest of us who worry about the wisdom of America being the only nuclear power (actual or wannabe) that is systematically engaged in denuclearization, however, the prospect of a future strategic "Monad" is alarming.
The Defense Secretary is rightly concerned about the ability of an all-volunteer force to continue to maintain the operational tempos that have characterized the past decade. Regrettably, the military may confront no-less-daunting requirements in the next decade, too, especially if enemy perceptions that the United States "lost" Iraq and/or Afghanistan translate into expensive new conflicts. Cut the numbers of troops in the Army and Marines, cut their pay andbenefits - both of which Mr. Gates says are in prospect if the President has his way with the Pentagon budget - and that problem becomes infinitely worse.
That could be the effect, as well, if Mr. Gates and outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen certify before leaving office that the military is ready to accept avowed homosexuals. Both have pushed hard for this top Obama agenda item; both know the President wants to get this done in time for June's Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Month festivities.
Yet, both men must appreciate that their successors should be allowed to take a fresh, hard look at the impact this action will actually have on readiness, unit cohesion and retention. Such would be the case especially if that it proves to be as bad as careful analysis of the data predicts - particularly among the combat arms. In that event, the contribution made during Mr. Gates' tenure at the Pentagon to the hollowing-out of the armed forces will be even more severe.
Mr. Gates' warnings about the Obama agenda are indeed welcome. One can only wish he had done less to enable it to date, and pray that he does not make matters worse still before leaving office four weeks from now.
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is President of the Center for Security Policy (www.SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for the Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program, Secure Freedom Radio, heard in Washington weeknights at 9:00 p.m. on WRC 1260 AM.