US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

This weekend, the secretary of defense called for additional spending cuts to keep the defense budget flat for the future. But flat budgets aren’t always smart budgets—or even an effective way to cut waste. The defense budget doesn’t need simple cuts. It needs true reform.

The Heritage Foundation has long argued that internal defense-budget imbalances continue to threaten the modernization of America’s military equipment. Real reform—beyond weapons system cuts—must be enacted to funnel money back to this priority.

Unfortunately, Secretary Robert Gates continues to let the defense tail wag the foreign-policy dog. His Kansas speech discussed hard choices, the “dilemma” of paying for America’s national security, and the need to maintain balance among federal programs. Washington’s global budgeting priorities are the stuff of a larger debate, one that should involve the American people. But it’s a topic that falls largely outside the purview of the secretary of defense.

Defense policy is supposed to be subordinate to foreign policy. Defense policy—and by extension a plan of what the U.S. military must buy to meet the nation’s needs—is supposed to be dictated by America’s foreign-policy goals and vital national interests, as outlined by the president.

America’s military power should match the commitments America’s military is expected to keep, which in turn are determined by how American political leaders, over time, define the vital interests of the U.S. It is not up to the Pentagon to determine America’s foreign-policy vision. Unfortunately, this administration has yet to articulate that vision. It is supposed to be contained in the National Security Strategy report. But the administration has not yet completed that report.

The vacuum of leadership keeps Secretary Gates in the foreign-policy driver’s seat—a position he has assumed with no visible sign of reluctance.

America’s unique role in the world places growing demands on the U.S. military to protect friends and allies, deter enemies and potential challengers, and shape and influence the events and investments of other countries. Maintaining our core military advantages requires financial investment.

In Kansas, the secretary of defense spoke as though it were inevitable that the Pentagon cannot get enough money to sustain today’s force structure, much less get the funds need to equip the next generation men and women in uniform. But is national security truly unaffordable? Who made that decision and when? And shouldn’t any decision on this be put on hold until the administration delivers its National Security Strategy, so we can see what our troops will be expected to achieve? Only then can our leaders plan—and budget—accordingly.

Cross-posted at The Corner.