EVER SINCE President Eisenhower's farewell warning about the unaccountable "military-industrial complex," America has been caught in a web of extravagant spending, woven by defense contractors, lobbyists, retired generals, and legislators seeking to protect jobs and businesses in their districts. Today, that extravagance is no longer affordable, if it ever was. Confronted with soaring deficits, the country cannot go on lavishing money on advanced weapons systems with little utility, or on foreign military bases dating from a Cold War that ended 20 years ago.
Fortunately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recognizes the need to change course. As a former CIA analyst who rose to become agency director under the first President Bush, Gates has the credentials to lead the battle against entrenched interests of the military-industrial complex.
Most important of all is the common-sense practicality Gates has displayed in discussing the defense-spending choices America must make. Obvious as it may sound to the average taxpayer, Gates is piercing an elaborate marketing mythology each time he observes that the government should not buy high-tech weapons that are useless in the actual counterinsurgency conflicts Americans are fighting - and are likely to be fighting in the future.
Gates was uncommonly candid in congressional testimony last month about one of the most expensive items in the Pentagon budget, the F-22 Raptor fighter plane. "The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said, "and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater." This is not what mavens of the military-industrial complex want lawmakers to hear from a secretary of defense. The Air Force has thus far bought nearly 200 F-22s for more than $62 billion. Yet this is a state-of-the art flying machine built to match up against fighter planes that only the United States possesses.
It will not be easy to bring rationality to the business of procuring weapons systems that are truly needed. And the hard budgeting truth is that close to 60 percent of current defense spending is taken up with costs related to military personnel - for their salaries and health insurance, their training, equipping, and transporting. This portion of the defense budget is likely to expand in coming years.
These unavoidable costs are precisely why luxury items like the F-22, faulty systems such as mid-course missile defense, and the 227 outmoded US bases in Germany ought to be trimmed from the federal budget. There is nothing patriotic about wasteful defense spending.