Defense Chief's Efforts to Reshape Military Draws Conservative Criticism

In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tried several times to deliver a message loud and clear to the military establishment: It is time to trim the bureaucracy and buy cheaper weapons.

"Given America's difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny," Gates said Saturday at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Kansas. "The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time."

The defense chief wants to cut $15 billion from the 2011 budget and has expensive next-generation weapons systems in his sights.

Gates has also targeted the C-17—arguing the military does not need more cargo planes. He's opposed to developing an alternative engine for the joint strike fighter. And Gates is going after the Navy as well.

"The new ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the next generation, will probably cost $7 billion apiece. We can't afford $3 (billion) to $6 billion destroyers."

But some conservative national security groups are lining up to oppose what they see as an effort by the Obama administration to weaken defense and "hollow out" the military at a very dangerous time.

"We have a whole host of other characters, who through ballistic missiles and supersonic cruise missiles, and covertly deployed cruise missiles, and terrorism, and WMD, are going to become very dangerous asymmetric threats, if you will, to this country and to its people," Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy said.

One argument against cutting is returning to the Reagan-era "peace through strength."

"Peace through strength meant that our best hope for having peace was that we would be strong enough," said Edwin Meese, the attorney general in the Reagan administration. "Ronald Reagan used to say no nation ever got into a war because they were too strong."

But Gates argues the cuts must be substantial and lasting.

"Simply taking a few percent off the top of everything on a one-time basis will not do," Gates said Saturday. "These savings must stem from root-and-branch chances that can be sustained and added to over time."

All agree there needs to be cuts in spending, but Meese and Gaffney say they should come from domestic programs because defense of the country is the government's primary responsibility.