One can only wish Robert Gates well in his latest effort to bring America's military spending under control. If they are approved by Congress – a very big if – the cuts the US Defence Secretary is outlining, notably the elimination of an entire military command and a thinning of the Pentagon's bloated parallel army of private contractors, will save around $20bn annually over the next five years. Set against the current defence budget of some $700bn a year, the reduction is less than breathtaking. But it is a step in the right direction.
Mr Gates has arguably the keenest political antennae of any recent holder of his job. He knows full well that the Pentagon sooner or later must do its bit if America's huge and chronic budget deficit is to be tackled. As a student of history, he will also be aware that great powers are brought down not by military defeat but by financial profligacy and debt. There is no reason why the US should be an exception to this rule.
Thus far, the Pentagon has entirely escaped the axe – thanks to a combination of America's veneration for its military, the power of the military/industrial lobby on Capitol Hill, and of course the need to fund simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inevitably, there has developed what Mr Gates has denounced as "a culture of endless money". To change this culture, he aims to stage a pre-emptive strike. The overall defence budget will rise, but by a slower annual rate. If the proposed cuts do go through, less will be spent on the Pentagon's bureaucracy, and resources will be shifted into the military's real business end: the troops and weapons that actually fight today's wars.
Already Mr Gates has made valiant efforts to starve the beast, terminating or scaling back costly hi-tech programmes rendered irrelevant by the end of the Cold War. But even before he had completed his announcement on Monday afternoon, representatives of Congressional districts that stand to lose jobs and federal dollars – Republicans and Democrats alike – were voicing their criticism.
The Defence Secretary needs no reminding that similar resistance is keeping alive development of a second, back-up, engine for the next generation F-35 fighter, even though the overall cost of the F-35 programme has doubled to over $380bn in just a decade – and even though the White House and the Pentagon say the alternative engine is unnecessary. However dire the state of the national finances, pushing through these planned cuts will be no less difficult.