The threat of deep cuts to the nation's defense budget in early 2013 will cause a world situation that will have a negative impact on the American way of life, according to one of the nation's leading defense experts.
Speaking to about 900 attendees at the 25th anniversary dinner celebration for Leadership Huntsville/Madison County at the Von Braun Center's North Hall on Thursday, retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that a strong military translates into freedom for America and its allies.
"In the final analysis, the greatest beneficiaries of American leadership in the world are the American people in terms of security, prosperity and our freedom," Gates said.
But sequestration -- the act of cutting the defense budget by nearly half a trillion dollars over the next decade (about $55 billion in the first year) if Congress is unable to reach a compromise on how to solve America's debt dilemma -- will lead to higher costs in terms of military losses and mistrust of the U.S. by its allies, he said.
Saying the U.S. is in a serious predicament in terms of federal spending, the national debt, high unemployment and stagnant growth, Gates said "the stakes are very high for America and for the world … financial insolvency at home will turn into strategic insolvency abroad that is more painful and potentially more risky in terms of national security."
Sequestration in 2013 will lead to a reduction of $1.2 trillion in the federal government's discretionary spending, with half of that coming from the defense budget. Such deep across-the-board cuts in defense spending will not only wreak havoc on the economy of military-connected communities such as Huntsville but will also "do great damage" to the U.S. military, homeland security, aviation programs and other government entities that keep America strong at home and overseas, he said.
Gates went on to explain that U.S. defense expenditures have already been deeply cut and represent only a small percentage of the U.S. federal budget. In 1961, defense spending consumed more than half of the federal budget. When Gates left government service in 2011, the defense budget was $530 billion, representing less than 15 percent of federal expenditures. To achieve that budget, more than 30 major military systems were canceled or capped for a savings of $330 billion with another $80 billion reduced by cutting bureaucratic overhead.
"By the summer of 2011, defense spending already had planned cuts of $900 billion over the next 10 years," Gates said. "Defense spending has already been cut and been cut substantially" and further spending decreases will cut "capabilities deemed absolutely critical to national security."
In a world where national security threats have become more dangerous in terms of unpredictability and likelihood, where China continues to build both its wealth and its military, where rogue nations like North Korea and Iran add to their nuclear arms and Pakistan begins its own nuclear weapon development, where southeast Asia nations become more threatening to Israel and where terrorist networks continue to grow, the strength of America's defense is crucial. In a world where America is still at war, there is a need for bold actions that will keep the nation's military strong as the world becomes "more turbulent and, in some ways, more dangerous," he said.
Further defense cuts will have a negative impact on the "size, readiness and overall capability of our military," Gates said, and troops will be "smaller, less ready and less modernized" with a lessened ability to respond to world threats and a higher risk to troop safety.
Even though U.S. leaders throughout history have reduced defense spending at the end of major wars, history also shows that such a reduction has never been a good idea. As America strives for peace, "America's adversaries always have a vote" that changes the course of that commitment, he said.
"I have yet to see evidence that will sway me. America has a special position and a responsibility on this Earth" to defend freedom, he said.
In comments directed to his Huntsville audience, Gates thanked the community "for your strong support of our military, the troops as well as their families."
He congratulated Gen. Dennis Via, commander of the Army Materiel Command, for becoming the first Signal Corps officer in the Army's history to earn a general's fourth star.
And, speaking about leadership, Gates used his experience as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, president of Texas A&M University and secretary of defense under President George Bush and President Barack Obama, to share his own lessons in leading others.
Good leaders share such qualities as courage and integrity; they treat employees with respect and decency; they establish teamwork and an agenda that will lead to success; and they inspire employees to dream more, learn more and become more than they are.
Those leaders who want to lead change, he said, engage internal and external stakeholders who take ownership of that change; are transparent in their decision making, and respect and consider the views of stakeholders; incentivize and motivate stakeholders to think outside the box; and hold stakeholders accountable and responsible for the organization.
"When shoddy outpatient conditions at Walter Reed were made public, I didn't expect senior leaders to know everything about what was going on," Gates said. "But I fired those senior leaders because they tried to put the blame on the media and they tried to minimize the problem … when forthright and responsive action could have neutralized and benefited the situation."