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The end of an era at Defense

A transformation is taking place in American military affairs.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Washington March 12, 2009. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

NEW YORK — In the end, "the revolution devoured its own children."

Not the French one, although it happened there, too, as that quote from the German playright Georg Buchner famously noted.

The revolution I'm talking about is of a more recent vintage: the "Revolution in Military Affairs" — also known as the transformation — born in the 1990s as a Great Leap Forward for the American military after the Cold War, embraced by Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 as a way to "skip a generation of technology" and create a unilateral (read: American-dominated) world.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched something of a counter-revolution in military affairs. Gates, the Bush administration holdover whom President Obama wisely chose to retain, said aloud what most observers of the U.S. military have thought for years now: America cannot afford to spend the majority of its defense procurement dollars on futuristic weapons which might, someday, turn out to be useful against a so far unknown rival. Especially while American soldiers are fighting, dying, and "not winning" infantry-based wars in southwest Asia.

Gates did not so much cut the defense budget as rearrange its priorities.

  • He pledged to continue to grow the U.S. Army and Marines, adding expensive personnel costs that the transformation crowd ached to limit, because to do otherwise stretched troops too thin.
  • He proposed an end to multibillion-dollar programs dear to the heart of various military services: the F-22 fighter, the Navy's CGX cruiser program, the Transformational Satellite program, the Army's "Future Combat System" concept.
  • Missile defense programs, having notorious trouble hitting targets during field tests, took a direct hit of their own in the form of canceled programs, too.

But the real culture shift was the idea that defense spending should be, as he put it, "tied to the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries — not by what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary given unlimited time and resources."