Pentagon chiefs have taken stabs at reform before and seemed to fall on their swords. But this year is different.
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced his $534 billion budget on April 6, it included cuts, trims, and unhappy endings to high-profile weapons systems, like the F-22 Raptor, a $130 million-a-copy stealth fighter known as much for its unparalleled capability as its sticker price. Normally, defense contractors and other special interest groups – often within the Pentagon itself – armed with a fight-to-win mentality would stop such efforts in their tracks.
But the unassuming Mr. Gates had quietly eliminated such obstacles, firing two top Air Force officials who supported the F-22, thereby assuring that defense giant Lockheed Martin had no client to lobby on behalf of with Congress. By the next day, the company realized that, this time at least, fighting the Pentagon wasn’t in its best interest, and CEO Robert Stevens sent his lobbyists home.
The F-22 had become a symbol of how special interests can trump good public policy. Gates took a hard line, arguing that a supersonic, radar-evading plane isn’t relevant to the wars at hand (advocates argued it was for future national security in the event of more conventional conflict with nations such as China). And he got the backing of a president willing to pull out his veto pen.
Many in Congress balked over losing jobs in their home states. But without the backing of a powerful lobby to animate the debate, Gates was able to get his way.
“Frankly, defense industry lobbyists have been cowed by the forcefulness of Gates,” says Loren Thompson, a top defense industry analyst. “They don’t want to appear to be undercutting his priorities and are fearful of retribution.”
It’s not that previous Defense secretaries didn’t try to cut, it’s that they didn’t effectively enforce their priorities with Pentagon leaders who would go around them to achieve their own goals.
It was almost 50 years ago that President Eisenhower warned of the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” of the military industrial complex, now known as the “iron triangle” of the defense industry, Congress, and the Pentagon colluding to spend unnecessary billions. While no one yet says that Gates has broken the triangle, he may have softened its edges.
There will be more fights, but the writing is on the wall of defense spending: “Gates will prevail because the bottom line is, we ain’t got any money,” says Mr. Thompson.
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