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.

Justin Sullivan/AP/File
Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to soldiers at F.O.B. Warrior in Kirkuk, Iraq, Dec. 11.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s decision to stay on another year allows him to cement many of the policy and budgetary moves that have been the hallmarks of his tenure.

Mr. Gates, the only holdover from the Bush administration and an acknowledged Republican, has emerged in the Obama White House as one of the most respected senior advisers.

He has long portrayed himself as a reluctant leader willing to serve only as long as the president wishes it. But he has also been eager to make a lasting mark on defense policy. Now, having announced that he will stay on for “at least” another year, he may be in a position to secure his reputation as a reformer.

“His influence will continue to grow,” says Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. “A lot of the programs and initiatives that he has been pushing will take some time to implement, and the longer he stays around, the better his chances are for them to take hold.”

Gates the reformer

Gates will also be able to oversee the new strategy in Afghanistan of which he was a chief architect, as well the drawdown of forces in Iraq. But his tenure is having a broader reach. Gates has attempted to steer the Pentagon away from expensive programs that are less relevant to today’s wars.

He was largely successful in canceling or slowing programs that he deemed irrelevant, most notably the F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighter, which was cast as
an outdated technology more suitable for a conventional war than for tracking terrorists.

The question is whether Gates will simply steward the reforms he put in place last year or seek to expand them. Mr. Harrison believes he will go further.

Harrison likens the challenges the Defense Department confronts to that of GM: high healthcare, pension, and personnel costs. He believes Gates may try to rein in some of those costs, which now account for some 60 percent of the budget.

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.

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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