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Gates set to leave deeper imprint on Pentagon?

Though the Pentagon budget is slated to rise, he confronts an urgent need to force greater discipline on military spending.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 2009

Robert Gates: The Defense secretary is expected to try to bring to heel undisciplined spending at the Pentagon.

Larry Downing/Reuters/File

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Robert Gates has been a popular figure in Washington since he took over the Defense Department in 2006 from a discredited Donald Rumsfeld, essentially to salvage a stumbling war in Iraq. But the free pass may be about to come to an abrupt end.

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It will soon fall to Secretary Gates to make some unpopular choices – and probably step on some important toes – as his desire to reform a bloated Defense Department steeped in tradition, inertia, and bureaucracy collides with vested interests.

The Obama administration's new budget, unveiled Thursday, actually raises the Pentagon's baseline budget by 4 percent over the current fiscal year. But that money must support a bigger rank-and-file force, better help for disabled veterans, and some spending that previously had been lumped in with separate war costs. In the end, it means Gates must force greater fiscal discipline on the military – and probably redirect spending from some weapons programs toward other priorities.

"I suspect he'll become much more unpopular in the near future," says Frank Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia.

Though deciding to stay at the helm of the Defense Department under President Obama, Gates still has to shed his label as temporary caretaker of the government's biggest agency. It's now his baby, and the secretary himself has stirred the pot concerning the need for reform at the Pentagon, or "the building," as it's known in military circles in Washington.

He has argued, for instance, that the department has had a tin ear when it comes to spending priorities. Some in the Pentagon, for instance, favor spending on expensive conventional weapons, even though the current US fights, against terrorism and insurgents, require more personnel, above all. And the Navy and the Air Force have, to some degree, cited concerns about a rising China or Russia, for example, rather than point to a need to hire more linguists, legal advisers, or military police that would be helpful in counterinsurgency warfare.

Gates is now outlining his notion of how to find a proper "balance" between those competing views, publishing articles and making speeches lauded for the thoughtfulness with which they frame the debate over how to spend the Pentagon's half-trillion-dollar budget.