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.