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Can Robert Gates Tame the Pentagon?

13 minute read
Mark Thompson

If you are a firm believer in the war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ grim assessment last month of what lies in store for the U.S. might have made you shudder. “If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money, to be honest,” he said.

But if you are a defense contractor who has enjoyed a decade of bottomless Pentagon funding, it was Gates’ comments about a struggle much closer to home that are keeping you up at night. “The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing,” he said. “With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department.”

Gates, the U.S.’s 22nd Defense Secretary, has declared a low-key war against the military services and the way they develop and buy the weapons they use to defend the nation. Up until now, he has done that mostly by jawboning: The U.S. can’t “eliminate national-security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything,” Gates says in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. That futile quest has led to weapons that “have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build and are being fielded in ever dwindling quantities.”

But his war of words is about to become very real. As he prepares a budget for next year, Gates must decide the fate of a number of fantastically expensive weapons programs the military services say they need. He can’t fund them all–and might be wise to take a knife to them all. In this, Gates has little choice: the military’s annual budget has finished growing, and the billions it once imagined it might spend on future weapons have evaporated. So cuts–and big ones–are coming, and Gates will be the man who makes them.

Though Gates was hired by George W. Bush to clean up the mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates’ greatest legacy may come in what he calls a “strategic reshaping” that better outfits the U.S. military to wage coming wars. Future weapons buys must “be driven more by the actual capabilities of potential adversaries,” Gates told Congress a few weeks ago, “and less by what is technologically feasible given unlimited time and resources.” Pentagon procurement, he said, is plagued by a “risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense.”

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Gates, 65, speaks with a flat Kansas twang that masks the edge he honed during a 26-year career at the CIA, where he was director during Bush 41’s presidency. Following Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, Gates left the capital for a lakeside home near Seattle, wrote a book and sat on corporate boards before moving to Texas, where he served at Texas A&M University for seven years, the last four as its president. “An obstinate bureaucracy can be a formidable antagonist,” Gates said of the Pentagon in From the Shadows (1996), his memoir, “especially when giving up money is involved.” Attempting to change the Pentagon has defeated nearly every one of Gates’ predecessors. If he prevails, he will have done more to transform the Pentagon than anything his immediate predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, a self-proclaimed king of transformation, was able to accomplish. “I have no intention,” Gates said late last year, “of being a caretaker Secretary.”

In the coming days, Gates will have to decide what to do about countless weapons programs. Here are the three that matter most.

The Air Force

Gates’ first showdown looms with a $350 million–a–pop fighter jet. He has to decide by March 1 whether to add more F-22 Raptor fighters to the 183 purchased by the Bush Administration. For years, the Air Force has wanted to double the fleet, while Gates has made clear that he thinks 183 is sufficient. A month ago, some Air Force officials were saying privately that maybe 60 more F-22s would suffice. The Pentagon’s acquisition boss, John Young, recently detailed why more F-22s might be a poor investment. The F-22s that exist are ready to fly only 62% of the time and haven’t met most of their performance goals. “The airplane is proving very expensive to operate, not seeing the mission-capable rates we expected, and it’s complex to maintain,” Young said. Besides, he added, the Air Force plans on spending $8 billion to upgrade most of the F-22s it already has.

Gates has tangled with the Air Force before. Shortly after arriving at the Pentagon in late 2006, he pushed to boost production of unmanned aircraft for use in intelligence work, only to run into the Air Force’s long-standing love of manned fighters. But Gates’ hunch was vindicated in Afghanistan and Iraq, where cheaper, unmanned Predator and Reaper drones have been flying around the clock but expensive F-22s have yet to appear. Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap Jr. has written that drones are “game-changing” because of their unprecedented ability to loiter for hours, waiting for the enemy to reveal himself–and then kill him with their weapons. And yet Dunlap’s service remains wedded to white scarves, cockpits and all their inherent limitations.

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Indeed, it is only a matter of time before combat pilots, like biplanes, become obsolete. Tail-mounted GPS kits have given even dumb bombs amazing accuracy once they are pushed out the door of a lumbering cargo plane. Missiles launched from ships or subs have further minimized the need for penetrating warplanes. Meanwhile, much of the Raptor’s sky-high price–and that of accompanying jammer planes and rescue helicopters–is driven by the need to get the pilot into harm’s way and then safely out. Even worse, while the Air Force wants more fighters from a bygone era, it has been underbuying the drones that will rule the skies in the future. Though the number of unmanned aircraft is soaring, it hasn’t kept pace with the demand in Afghanistan and Iraq, where requirements for full-motion video are growing 300% annually. For every F-22 that isn’t bought, the Air Force could add about a dozen desperately needed drones to its fleet.

The Navy

Gates hasn’t torpedoed anything that belongs to the Navy–yet. But its $100 billion plan to buy a new fleet of 100,000-ton aircraft carriers (and the ships and subs to defend them) is a tempting target. That’s a huge investment in gigantic ships that are increasingly vulnerable to long-range missiles–and even pirates or terrorists in a dinghy. At the heart of the debate is whether the Navy can make do with the 281 ships it has or needs to grow about 10%, to 313 ships. Gates has good reason to be skeptical. The Navy’s “battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies combined,” he recently noted. “And 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners.”

Carriers replaced battleships at the center of U.S. naval power in World War II, but they’ve been losing ground, offensively and defensively, for years. Until the 1980s, the offensive punch of smaller warships was limited to short-range guns. But now these ships pack Tomahawk cruise missiles, giving every destroyer, cruiser and attack submarine the ability to destroy targets well beyond the reach of carrier-based planes–without risking pilots. Distributing that firepower across 120 warships instead of concentrating it on America’s 11 carriers makes sense. Then there’s the huge built-in cost of carriers. Much of a carrier group’s firepower–accompanying ships and subs and the airplanes on its deck–is dedicated to protecting the flattop itself. “We need to move from a Navy of a few large carriers to a Navy of many smaller ships,” says John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Navy’s postgraduate school in Monterey, Calif. “The carriers ought to have their numbers painted over with bull’s-eyes.”

Two recent Pentagon-funded reports have questioned the Navy’s carrier-centric strategy. The vessel’s huge cost and half-century life span give potential foes like China a “static target” to threaten, a 2007 report said. A smarter option, the study suggests, is to build a Navy of many smaller and simpler ships, which would complicate enemy targeting and give U.S. commanders better intelligence. Nonetheless, the Navy has just begun spending $11 billion to design and build the first in a new class of carriers, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, scheduled to join the fleet in 2015.

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The Army

Gates’ final target is on land. The Army is getting $160 billion to outfit a third of its force with a complex network of electronically linked vehicles, beginning in 2015. This supposedly synchronized web of vehicles is called the Future Combat Systems (FCS) and would include tanks, troop carriers and unmanned aircraft ostensibly knit together in a computerized cavalry. The Army likes to argue that the FCS is a transformational approach to fighting wars, in part because it is giving up a lot of armor in favor of some 95 million lines of computer code designed to detect and avoid enemy fire. In theory, all this technology would give combat GIs the ability to destroy the enemy from far away.

That’s the idea, anyway. In fact, there are serious questions about the FCS. Only two of its 44 key technologies are mature enough to generate reliable cost estimates, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Army has so far spent $18 billion trying to get the FCS to work and plans on spending $21 billion more before it gets a formal green light for production in 2013, when key performance tests still will not have been done. And the FCS’s vaunted mobility has already been scrapped; the Army has abandoned plans to transport all those vehicles to the battlefield aboard C-130 cargo planes because they are too heavy. Costs are on the rise as well: the Army was able to keep the FCS’s total price tag at $160 billion only by killing four of the program’s 18 platforms in 2007–and is likely to continue cutting them to keep down the expense.

The bigger question is whether such a high-tech approach to war makes sense after the U.S. learned that getting soldiers out of their vehicles and mixing among the locals was a key to turning Iraq around. Weapons designed to kill from afar may not be best for counterinsurgencies, in which intelligence is most often gleaned only by personal contact. General Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s No. 2 officer, disputes the idea that FCS “is a Cold War relic.” But not everyone agrees. Retired Army officer Andrew Krepinevich Jr., who advises the Pentagon as president of the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the U.S. already can do from the air what the Army wants the FCS to do from the ground. Such redundancies, Gates says, are things the country can no longer afford.

Trimming any of these systems–much less killing them–won’t be easy. Gates is waging this war on two fronts. First, he knows he has to change a Defense Department culture that favors “99% exquisite solutions over a five- or six- or 10-year period” to a “75% solution in weeks or months.” To help accomplish that, he is salting the military’s senior ranks with officers who agree with him. He tapped General David Petraeus, whose counterinsurgency skills helped stabilize Iraq, to head an Army board asked to sift through colonels to identify those who merit promotion to one-star general. “An institution can always beat one or two people,” Gates said recently, “but it’s tough to beat four or five.”

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His second front, Congress, is, if anything, harder. During an appearance on Capitol Hill, lawmakers pushed him to declare their pet programs safe. Senator James Inhofe pressed Gates to protect the FCS program, whose high-tech cannon is built in Oklahoma, Inhofe’s home state. “We have a nation where steel mills are shutting down,” said Representative Gene Taylor, whose Mississippi district builds ships and who chairs the House Seapower Subcommittee and co-chairs the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus. “I would ask you to encourage your acquisition folks to take advantage of these low prices.” Shutting down the F-22 line means “the loss of 95,000 jobs,” warned Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, as did many others in his state. “If we truly want to stimulate the economy, there’s no better place to do it than in defense spending.” Last month nearly half the Congress sent letters to Barack Obama urging him to keep the F-22 line humming.

To succeed, Gates will need backing from Obama, along with a plan to spend defense dollars more smartly, during the recession. Despite the protestations of lawmakers, defense spending is an inefficient way to create jobs because the skills that defense jobs demand require premium paychecks. (Civilians working on missile defense for Boeing in Arizona earn three times the state average, the company boasts–great for them, but not so good for taxpayers or the unemployed.) Gates has sent the White House $10 billion in military projects to include in the stimulus package–barracks, hospitals, clinics, child-care centers–that can more quickly generate jobs. Any additional funds saved by killing off major programs could be diverted into less glamorous programs the military needs more: cargo and tanker aircraft, Stryker combat vehicles and small littoral ships designed for coastal warfare. Today’s weapons can be radically improved with new electronics, engines and other components without having to build whole new ships, planes or tanks. The F-16’s builder says the latest version of that warplane rolling off Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, yields “the most advanced multirole fighter available today.” In fact, the hottest F-16 now in the skies is flown not by the U.S. Air Force but by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

Gates, tempered by his decades of seeing what U.S. intelligence could–and could not–do, is leery of the buzzwords and silver bullets that ricochet around the Pentagon. “Be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish,” he told an audience of midcareer military and intelligence officials last fall. War is “inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain,” he said. So is taking on the Pentagon.

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