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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, retiring next month after six years on the job, delivered his last major policy address at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington this afternoon, hitting many of the same themes--bureaucratic inertia and institutional rot in the Pentagon--that he has since taking the helm of the Pentagon on 2006.The big issue as Gates leaves office, as significant as the draw down in Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan, is the issue of the fiscal health of the nation and the effect this will have on future defense budgets. When it comes to the savings that president Obama has ordered the Pentagon to find in its budgets going forward, Gates told the defense spending-friendly audience at AEI that “what is being proposed by the president is nothing close to the cuts of the past,” specifically comparing the president’s proposals to the much larger cuts after Vietnam and the Cold War.“The defense budget,” he continued, “is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes” but the Department of Defense “must be at least part of the solution” to help the country regain fiscal stability. As usual, Gates was unsparing in his criticism of the defense establishment in the Pentagon, complaining that while defense budgets have doubled since 9/11, the country’s military has only seen “relatively modest gains” in defense capability, since most innovative technologies were born of the massive wartime supplementals as opposed to the base budget. Still, a decade at war has worn down the current inventory of trucks, tanks, ships and aircraft, the Secretary warned, and while some platforms can be refurbished, others must be completely replaced. The major priorities Gates sees for his successor in this regard are improvements in air mobility, long range strike, space and cyber warfare, and ground platforms. He said that “we must build a new tanker” and “we must field a next generation strike fighter” (the F35), as well as more ships, all while recapitalizing the ground force and replacing the country’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines. In order to do all this while still maintaining a force that can meet a variety of threats while staying within the kind of budgetary constraints unseen for the past decade is the challenge for the future, he said, and it’s one that will require tradeoffs that must be thought through carefully.
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