A winning defense

Our view: A proposed shift in Pentagon priorities would retool the U.S. military to respond to future threats, a change with benefits for Maryland and the nation

April 08, 2009

The radical reshuffling of America's military priorities proposed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this week makes an important turn away from the wasteful spending on the kinds of wars we used to fight to better prepare for the nontraditional conflicts we are likely to face.

Maryland would gain because billions in Pentagon spending would be shifted toward intelligence, surveillance and research programs headquartered here, most importantly, at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, which intercepts and decrypts secret communications around the world. Fort Meade employs more than 30,000 people, and tens of thousands more are expected to join them in the near future thanks to the base realignment and closure plan.

Unlike other military-strong states, Maryland's military base is scientific and tech-savvy. Lockheed Martin, one of the state's largest military contractors with 10,000 employees here, would lose and win under the Gates proposal. The company expects 625 local jobs may be lost if the production of the supersonic stealth F-22 fighter is canceled, as Mr. Gates proposed. But he also wants to speed up production of another Lockheed Martin project, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. About 1,000 Maryland employees are working on it.

Mr. Gates' proposal to radically revamp the Defense Department's missions is an appropriate and long-overdue effort to reform a system that has produced increasingly expensive high-tech conventional weapons, most of which have been largely useless in the nontraditional conflicts the U.S. has been fighting in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The defense secretary wants to use the money saved from canceling underutilized weapons systems to add more Special Forces and manpower to services that have been seriously strained by the long Iraq conflict. And he wants more of the relatively cheap pilotless drones that have been so effective against the Taliban in northeast Pakistan.

While all of this is urgently needed, Mr. Gates is expected to face serious challenges from Congress. A virtual army of lobbyists representing defense contractors is certain to fight the proposed cutbacks weapon by weapon. And members of Congress from across the country will be loath to lose the related jobs in the midst of a recession - the F-22 fighter, for instance, employs 25,000 workers at 1,000 suppliers in 44 states.

But economists agree that there are better ways to stimulate the economy than building very expensive but largely useless weapons. Better to invest in the kinds of smart warfare being developed in Maryland.

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