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What can Robert Gates achieve in extra year at Pentagon?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced recently that he will stay on at least another year. That will help him shepherd some of his Pentagon reforms – and perhaps start new ones.

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Under Gates, the size of the Army and Marine Corps has expanded by about 90,000 to its current size of 1.4 million. To attract and retain troops, the Pentagon has also increased pay and other benefits, raising basic pay 37 percent since 2001. Counting other benefits, the average junior enlisted service member makes the equivalent of about $43,000 annually now, according to the Pentagon.

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The fiscal 2011 budget is expected to be released early next month. Gates may use it for another round of cuts to programs. The Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, for example, represents only a small portion of the defense budget but has grown expensive at the same time that it is being increasingly seen as ineffective in today’s wars.

Challenge ahead: a shrinking budget?

During the next few years, the Pentagon expects to have less money to spend, but it’s unclear how much less, if at all, from the $534 billion budget released a year ago.

“I don’t anticipate that the money is going to go up,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a speech at the Naval War College in Rhode Island Friday. “In fact, I anticipate it’s probably going to go in the next couple of years in the other direction.”

That will put a squeeze on the Pentagon, which must begin to replenish aging, damaged, or destroyed equipment after the war in Iraq, says Stan Collender, a budgetary expert at Qorvis Communications.

“There’s going to have to be some increase in procurement to make up for the equipment that is either going to be left there or has been used up,” he told reporters in Washington Monday.

But Gates, who has spent several decades in Washington, will sooner or later want to return to his home in Washington State, where his wife, Becky, spends most of her time.

“He serves at the pleasure of the president indefinitely, and he is honored to do so, though he certainly looks forward to one day retiring to his family home in the Pacific Northwest,” said his spokesman, Geoff Morrell.

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