In his budget address Monday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates outlined his intention to "rebalance" U.S. defense spending. It is a plan that sounds right.
Not that everyone will agree. Gates means to kill several high-dollar weapons programs, which could endanger some jobs. In the end, though, his plan should better equip the men and women defending us, while potentially saving the taxpayers money in the long run.
Among other things Gates would:
•End the Navy's DDG-1000 stealth destroyer program at three ships and resume construction of the less expensive DDG-51.
•Kill two programs within the Missile Defense Agency, both of which have experienced problems. That will save $1.4 billion.
•Do away with a $13 billion program to build a new fleet of helicopters - essentially flying limousines - for the president's use.
•Stop production of the C-17 cargo plane at 205 planes.
Gates also wants to cancel the most complex and pricey parts of the Army's Future Combat Systems, specifically an $87 billion ground vehicle. He explained that by saying its design does "not adequately reflect the lessons of counterinsurgency and close quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The idea is to align Pentagon spending to real military needs - not to fight the last war or to guarantee jobs in a congressional district. That does not mean focusing all military planning on the immediate threats from guerillas, terrorists or insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. But neither does it mean diverting resources away from troops actually deployed to counter threats that are at most hypothetical.
The problem is that threats that are militarily imaginary can also be quite real politically. The example of that facing Gates is a fighter plane, the F-22 Raptor. A technical marvel, the F-22 is the most advanced craft ever to fly. At $143 million per copy, it is also frightfully expensive.
The problem is, it does not have a mission. Designed to ensure air supremacy against an enemy with a similar level of technology, the only example of which was the Soviet Union, the F-22 is for all its technical marvels a relic of the Cold War. It has no role, for example, in Afghanistan. Gates would cap the production of F-22s at the 187 already ordered.
But production of the aircraft involves jobs in 46 states. And with that, Congress can be expected to defend it.
Overall, though, this is hardly a plan to slash the Pentagon's budget. Gates' budget would increase defense spending by 4 percent. The difference is where it would go.
While stopping the F-22, Gates' budget includes spending for more of the F-35, a smaller, cheaper and potentially more versatile fighter. It would buy more of the wickedly effective Predator drones. It would increase the number of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships, which do have a counterinsurgency capacity. It boosts spending on helicopter pilots, battlefield missile defense, medical research and care for the wounded.
As Gates put it, "goals should be 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."
That makes perfect sense. And given that it could also mean better protecting real Americans in real danger right now, Congress should look beyond the lobbyists and support Gates' effort.