Last week we celebrated the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address, with its ringing call to "pay any price, bear any burden" for the nation's security. But a better guide to the choices we face today is President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, delivered three days earlier, and his call to restrain the "military-industrial complex."
Trimming the defense budget is one of the hardest tasks in Washington. Congress never met a weapons system it didn't like. But with the nation's debt problems, making sensible cuts has become essential. That's clear to Defense Secretary Bob Gates and the military leadership, even if Congress is still treating the Pentagon budget as a pork barrel.
Senior Pentagon officials recognize that new technologies make it possible to reshape the budget without putting the country at greater risk. But this transition will require an honest evaluation of the "legacy systems" -- the squadrons of manned bombers and fighters, the fleets of aircraft carriers, cruisers and submarines -- that are wrapped in red, white and blue.
Defense analysts argue that this is the age of "unmanned aerial vehicles" -- and soon unmanned ships, subs and tanks, too. These simple, autonomous platforms will be cheaper and more robust but no less deadly to an adversary.
If the Obama administration seizes this opportunity, and drives it through the inevitable congressional opposition, it can begin a real transformation of the defense budget. Technology should allow the United States to cut costs for traditional legacy systems as it prepares for the new threats that are ahead.
The new technologies that will drive these changes are detailed in a study called "Technology Horizons" that was prepared last year by Werner Dahm, who was then chief scientist of the Air Force. He urged research on "cyber resilience" and "electromagnetic spectrum warfare," including lasers and other beam weapons. And he stressed that unmanned systems, coordinated by advanced software, can give "operational advantages over adversaries who are limited to human planning and decision speeds."
Lasers are only a few years away from being practical weapons, Pentagon officials say. Ground-based lasers could revolutionize air defense, and a new generation of solid-state lasers may be small enough for airborne platforms.
Space will become, metaphorically, a vulnerable "low ground" in this new environment. Powerful ground-based lasers will be able to blind or disable satellites, so redundant forms of communication will be needed. So will alternatives to platforms that depend on space-based global positioning system (GPS) technology.
The hard part of this defense transformation will be giving up the grand old systems that for generations have symbolized U.S. military power.
In this season of budget politics, there can't be any sacred cows. Obama and his Pentagon advisers need to show the country -- including Congress -- that by changing how we spend money, it will be possible to cut our defense budget and stay safe.