More on Robert Gates's rationale

I mentioned last week Robert Gates's remarkably lucid argument for why the Air Force should stop most future purchases of the wonderful-if-we-could-afford-it-but-we-can't F-22 fighter plane.

Yesterday, he went to the Air War College, at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, to lay out the rationale for thinking about the F-22 and defense planning in general. Why "go to the war colleges to discuss this topic?" Gates asked rhetorically in the speech. Because "these recommendations are less about budget numbers than they are about how the U.S. military thinks about and prepares for the future."

If you're interested in such thinking and preparation, the speech is very much worth reading. It includes passages like the following, which to put it mildly are not what we've mainly heard from Secretaries of Defense over the decades (emphasis added):  

Another important thing I looked at was whether modernization programs, in particular ground modernization programs, had incorporated the operational and combat experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem with the Army's Future Combat Systems vehicles was that a program designed nine years ago did not adequately reflect the lessons of close-quarter combat and improvised explosive devices that have taken a fearsome toll on our troops and their vehicles in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.
 
Finally, I concluded we need to shift away from the 99 percent "exquisite" service-centric platforms that are so costly and complex that they take forever to build and only then in very limited quantities.  With the pace of technological and geopolitical change, and the range of possible contingencies, we must look more to the 80 percent multi-service solution that can be produced on time, on budget, and in significant numbers. As Stalin once said, "Quantity has a quality all of its own."

Does this mean that everything Gates proposes is right, that the defense budget has been pared to the essentials, and that all systemic problems have been solved? Of course not. The best single starting point for the necessary ongoing critique is the venerable "Defense and the National Interest" site here, or the book America's Defense Meltdown which I have so often touted, now on sale here.

But Gates in this speech (and some previous ones) does the very things I found admirable in Barack Obama's recent long-form economic presentation. He treats the audience like adults, he fairly presents opposing viewpoints, and he explains why he nonetheless considers the path he's on the most sensible one. All in all, he sounds like a man who makes his own decisions on the basis of evidence and logic -- and who presents issues as if he expects the public to do the same. That's worth noticing.

Update: For an extensive (and very supportive) parsing of the intellectual and argumentative structure of Obama's economic speech, see this entry at XPostFactoid.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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