The U.S. military, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, must take a hard look at military force structure and determine what is essential -- and then be honest with Congress and the White House about the consequences of cuts.
"To shirk this discussion of risks and consequences -- and the hard decisions that must follow -- I would regard as managerial cowardice," he said.
As the Pentagon launches a review to find $400 billion in cuts to its budget over the next 12 years, defense officials are weighing whether to abandon the primary assumption behind military planning for the last two decades -- that the U.S. military must be prepared to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously.
During one of his last policy addresses before he leaves the Pentagon next month, Gates on Tuesday acknowledged the low probability that two major wars would break out at the same time. But he suggested defense officials must also consider the risks of reducing the military's force structure to the point it could not respond to such a scenario.
"One can assume certain things won't happen on account of their apparently low probability. But the enemy always has a vote," Gates said at the American Enterprise Institute. "These are the kinds of scenarios we need to consider, the kinds of discussions we need to have."
Gates said he would rather have a "smaller but superbly capable military than a larger, hollow, less capable one." But he also warned that a smaller military will be able to deploy fewer places and conduct fewer missions.
As they review defense plans, budgets, and force structure, defense officials also are trying to strike a balance between a focus on combating high-end, sophisticated enemies and far less sophisticated counterinsurgencies.
"My view is you've got to figure out a way to be able to deal with that," Gates said. "How much you need to deal with that, I think, is the analytical challenge."
But Gates also downplayed the impact of the proposed cuts, which are part of the White House's overall plan to rein in the deficit. The $400 billion in cuts over 12 years amounts to a 5 percent decrease in the defense budget, in constant dollars. By comparison, defense spending declined by about one-third between 1985 and 1998.
"What's being proposed by the president is nothing close to the dramatic cuts of the past," Gates said.