In proposing a major reshaping of defense spending even before the White House has processed the proposals and added its stamp of hopeful approval to the blueprint, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that it will be difficult "to make tough choices about specific systems and defense priorities based solely on the national interest and then stick to those decisions over time."


That has to stand as one of the understatements of this or any century.


If there is a model of pure socialism in this country, it has to be the cluster of government-dependent companies known as the defense industry, or the military-industrial complex. Over the last half-century-plus a complex of companies has grown up whose only customer is the government, which means that the need for the kind of competition you see in more market-oriented industries simply doesn't apply. Political influence replaces customer preference in determining output.


Numerous Defense Secretaries, including Donald Rumsfeld and even Dick Cheney have made yeoman efforts to reform the convoluted defense procurement process to make it more flexible and more capable of responding to the changing needs of military forces in the kinds of battles we are actually fighting rather than continuing to spend excessively to counter a Soviet Union that hasn't existed for almost 20 years. Each has failed.


Secretary Gates's impulses given the assumption that the United States should continue to police the world, which is due for a rethinking that is unlikely to occur are constructive. He would produce only 4 more of the advanced $150-million F-22 fighter, topping the arsenal at 187, and divert spending to the less expensive F-35.


Such reforms, combined with the kind of defense procurement reforms Secretary Gates proposes, would probably give the U.S. a more agile and effective military. Unfortunately, few are likely to come to pass.


Perhaps all you need to know about the chances for ending F-22 production is that there are subcontractors for the plane in 44 states. That means that members of Congress in both parties have an interest in defending the program regardless of whether it is needed or useful or not.


We wish Secretary Gates all the best in this latest effort to reform the Pentagon procurement system and eliminate unneeded defense systems. But we doubt if he'll have much success.