Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, has always enjoyed a somewhat mild manner in public. But he has just unveiled an overhaul of the Pentagon’s annual defence budget that is causing anguished squealing in Congress and the nation’s defence-industrial complex. Mr Gates’s overhaul does not entail any reduction in the Pentagon’s mammoth $534bn annual budget. But it brings cutbacks in a string of traditional military programmes that big name defence contractors have long cherished.

Mr Gates is reshaping the Pentagon budget with one goal in mind. He believes that the US, given the scale of the financial crisis, does not have unlimited resources with which to fight every kind of war; and that the Pentagon procurement system does not always buy the kind of weapons the country needs, anyway. In short, he believes the US needs more resources to fight insurgencies of the kind we see in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fewer to fight conventional wars against big nations such as China and Russia that will probably never take place.

From this thinking flow his decisions. On the one hand, Mr Gates is shifting away from conventional war planning – cutting missile defence programmes, ending production of the F-22 fighter and delaying the development of a new bomber. On the other hand, he wants to boost counter-terrorism operations, increasing the size of the army and marine corps, and putting billions more into surveillance equipment, such as drones.

These moves should be largely applauded. The Pentagon – and the defence contractors who supply it – cannot live on the assumption that the US must always have the best weapon system on offer, irrespective of need and price. Mr Gates will have a tough task getting this message across to Congress, where politicians have local defence factories to support. In making the case, however, he has the strong advantage of being a former member of the Bush administration.

Still, Mr Gates is open to criticism on one point. He is starting this restructuring before the administration has begin to conduct its next scheduled review of the country’s long-term security challenges.

Given the tasks facing the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to assume that counter-insurgency operations will dominate the next generation of warfare. But the threat to the US from powerful, industrialised nations has not totally disappeared. Before Mr Gates reshapes the Pentagon budget any further, a more comprehensive assessment of the threat facing the US and its allies is surely needed.

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