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Can Robert Gates Walk the Walk? March 17, 2009

Posted by dglaudemans in Analysis.
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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Can Robert Gates Walk the Walk?

This blog posting originally appeared on www.democracyarsenal.org.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is said to be seriously considering cutting major weapons programs in the new defense budget.  If so, it is a worthy step.  The budget is over-burdened with systems we no longer need (more F-22s) and some that are bearing no promise (FCS, for example).  The question is whether Gates’ intentions are real or trial balloon.  The other question is whether the Congress would let him do it, or argue, instead, as the defense industry is trying to do, that these programs are great economic stimulus; killing them now would be a disaster in a recess/depress-ion.

I think Gates is serious, but the services are not.  The Air Force wants the F-22 and the Army wants FCS; they are systems at the core of how the services continue to see their missions. Gates is also a canny Washington, DC player; he has already heard from Murtha and the cast of thousands supporting the F-22.  And he knows that Congress will try to put back in what he takes out.  Welcome to Washington, Mr. Smith.

The economics of military hardware does not make the case for continuing the program.  There is no reason to continue a weapon system that is not needed, or does not work.  In reality, military hardware makes for bad stimulus, unless you work in the plant or the immediately surrounding community (where it is a real job and real local demand).  Extensions of hardware programs, and rushed efforts to fund new ones do not meet the stimulus test – slow contracting process, slower ramp-up to production, add-ons at the end of contracts that don’t happen now, the inevitable program delays, – all slow down the stimulative effect of military systems.

Moreover, the employment effects of not continuing a program are routinely overstated.  Even Lockheed is coming down off the 95,000 number they claimed for the F-22. Defense jobs are high paying, high technology jobs, not like road and bridge-building.  These technical workers are very fully employed people right now and, given the rough doubling of the procurement budget over the past eight years, the opportunity for shifting from program A to Program B (see F-22 and F-35) is high.

It is sometimes said that other types of federal spending create more jobs than defense.  That is right, and it is statistically predictable.  Defense employment is high wage; health employment is not, so of course you create more jobs per dollar on the latter. The one is not “better” than the other except in this pure mathematical sense.

The key to stimulus is putting money into the economy and creating jobs where the unemployment is, not in stringing out production programs for systems that are marginal to our national security (missile defense), of which we already have plenty (F-22), un-wanted by the services, themselves (Marine expeditionary vehicle, DDG-1000).

Defense needs to focus on real requirements, not on this game of rhetorical dodge-ball. If Gates is doing that, more power to him.

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