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.
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.
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.
"The categories of warfare are blurring and no longer fit into neat, tidy boxes," Gates wrote in an article in January's Foreign Affairs magazine. "One can expect to see more tools and tactics of destruction – from the sophisticated to the simple – being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare."
But some who watch the secretary from Capitol Hill say that, for all his talk of defense reform, he has teed up his shot but has yet to swing.
"He ain't mixing it up yet," says one staffer who works for a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the matter. "Despite his high-profile speeches and firings [of high-ranking officers], which are pretty real, he hasn't reached down to the guts of the bureaucracy yet."
The staffer, writing in an e-mail, expects that Gates will start to put his ideas into practice in the next year or so. "I believe Gates does have a long-range plan. He just isn't talking about [it] openly."
Gates's popularity stemmed from the fact that he was not Mr. Rumsfeld, the blustery Defense secretary who oversaw the military's invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld set out to transform the shape and capabilities of US forces, but his own personality and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in little actual change.
"In some ways, [Gates] is more Rumsfeld than Rumsfeld," says Tom Mahnken, who recently left the Pentagon after serving as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for policy planning. "The stereotype of Rumsfeld is that he would hold people's feet to the fire, but the truth is he didn't."
Gates, on the other hand, has fired or let resign the secretary of the Army, the secretary of the Air Force and his chief of staff, and the senior commander of US Central Command.
Still, Gates is working with a team that is not necessarily of his own choosing. Under President Bush, he inherited Pentagon appointees approved by Rumsfeld. Obama's transition team, likewise, made the picks for top positions, though Gates gave input.
If Gates is to lower the boom on the Pentagon's overall budget, he has his work cut out for him. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported last year that several defense programs are severely over budget, including the Army's Future Combat Systems, a high-tech "network of systems" that includes manned and unmanned vehicles, satellite gear, and sensors; the Marine Corps' MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey airplane/helicopter; the Air Force's F-22 Raptor stealth fighter; and the Navy's littoral combat ship.
In all, overruns for major defense programs total nearly $300 billion in the past decade – about equivalent to three years' worth of recapitalization of equipment from war use.
Gates may get some help from Congress in curtailing Pentagon spending. Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Carl Levin (D) of Michigan introduced legislation Tuesday to put more muscle into an existing law requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress of cost overruns. The lawmakers say 95 major defense programs have, on average, exceeded their research and development budgets by 40 percent, are two years late, and have seen acquisition costs grow by 26 percent. The measure calls for terminating programs that cross a certain threshold unless the Defense secretary recommends otherwise.
The kinds of overall reforms Gates may have in mind could take years, while cuts would have an immediate effect. Already a consensus is emerging that the $120-million-a-copy F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, the crown jewel of the Air Force's procurement plan, will be slashed. The service will buy far fewer than the 381 it has sought. Without acknowledging a specific cut, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said last week that the service knows the Raptor is a target.
At the same time, cuts to the F-22 Raptor – as well as to other defense programs – mean cuts to the workforce at a precarious time for the US economy. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have launched an online petition to "Save Our Raptor Jobs," claiming 95,000 jobs are at risk if cuts are made.
Some suggest that Gates should be judged by the next 18 months, not the past 18; others say that by the time Gates leaves, he will have cemented his reputation as a shrewd reformer.
"He has challenged the inertia in pretty forceful terms, and I think he's going to pick his fights carefully," says Mr. Hoffman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "And I wouldn't wager against him."