Robert Gates Overhauls the Pentagon

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Wired presents a lackluster list of “shocking” ideas that could (supposedly) change the world, but Noah Shachtman’s piece on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates goes much deeper than the other 11 and explains how Gates bent the bureaucracy to his will:

By 2009, changes to the status quo, combined with a successful counterinsurgency push in Iraq, resulted in adjusted attitudes at the Pentagon. The new Air Force chiefs were talking about how awesome drones were. Pentagon staffers were talking about asymmetric war. Anyone discussing showdowns with China or Russia tended to use the same theoretical tone one might employ in considering war with Alpha Centauri.

Still, these changes were marginal compared to the $500 billion-a-year spending machine. Now, $300 billion of that was sacrosanct, going to troops, operations, and maintenance. But the rest went to the Pentagon’s deeply odd process of developing and acquiring new weapons. Among the ongoing projects when Gates came aboard: a constellation of five “transformational” communications satellites that talk to one another using a technology that hasn’t been shown to work, a laser-equipped 747 designed to zap incoming missiles (which had its first test fire last summer after 13 years in development), a presidential helicopter with a kitchen that can heat up meals after a nuclear war, and Future Combat Systems — the Army’s $160 billion, grand modernization project, due to actually get high tech gear to troops by 2011. “You ever read Superman comic books?” asks Eric Edelman, the former Pentagon policy chief. “Well, acquisitions is like the Bizarro universe. Everything is reversed; the world is square, not round.”

Every secdef from McNamara to Rumsfeld tried to cut over-budget, long-delayed weapons programs. Usually, though, their efforts leaked to the press and Congress, who hit them with a tsunami of tears over lost jobs and weakened national potency. Starting in 1989, then-secdef Dick Cheney (before he became a supervillain) tried four times to ax the Osprey, an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and cruises like a plane. It took $26 billion, 30 dead crewmembers, and 25 years of development, but the Osprey eventually flew. Even Cheney couldn’t stop it.

Gates thought his circumstances gave him a better shot. Even amid two wars and a collapsing economy, he had already lived through one scandal, and he was the only cabinet secretary to serve both Bush and Obama. “I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity,” Gates says. He told his aides to forget about the economy, about generals and defense contractors and all the other extraneous political bullshit. “Let me worry about the politics,” he said.

Then he made his deliberations covert. “I don’t want this leaking out in pieces,” he told his staff. “We’ll get eaten alive.” For the first time, everyone involved in the process had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Gates’ team set up an exclusive reading room for the budget documents. Only top-ranking generals — four stars — were allowed inside, and they were not permitted to take the briefings out.

Starting on January 6, Gates and a handful of advisers began meeting regularly. “Everything is on the table,” Gates told them. The group would get a white paper on a given issue — missile defense, fighter aircraft, ground forces — and Gates would review the options on what to keep or kill. Gates wouldn’t say outright what he wanted to do with a given program; that way, no one would have details to leak. But everyone knew cuts were coming. Under the Bush administration, Pentagon spending had gone up 75 percent in eight years. “You need a cut to force the institution to make changes to the system,” says Berkson, who coordinated the budget deliberations. “You need that pressure.”

In the end, Gates cut the satellites, the nuke-proof helicopter, the laser-firing jumbo jet prototype, the Future Combat Systems trucks, and, most symbolic, the F-22. Each one of these strike-throughs meant billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost in dozens of congressional districts. Taken together, they represented the biggest reorg of the Pentagon in a generation.

After the April budget announcement, Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said that Gates was “gutting our military.” One congressional committee after another voted to keep building F-22s and other Bizarro projects. Gates and the Pentagon “need to learn who’s in charge, and the Congress is,” said Democratic representative Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii. Not even Obama’s threats to veto any budget with F-22s had an effect. The jet had become a symbol of resistance to the Gates Doctrine. By one tally, the Raptor had 45 supporters in the Senate. Gates had only 23 backers.

In mid-July, the weekend before the crucial vote, the White House and Gates’ team started lobbying. Gates assured senator John Kerry that the Massachusetts Air National Guard wouldn’t be severely impacted, and he reportedly warned the CEO of Raptor-maker Lockheed Martin that if his company lobbied in favor of the F-22, Gates would cut other Lockheed contracts. The new Air Force secretary told Wyoming senator Mike Enzi he didn’t want any more Raptors anyway. The following Tuesday, the Senate voted 58-40 to stop production of the Raptors. Gates had won.

Aboard his plane, however, the secretary tries to downplay the importance of the budget votes. This is a onetime, temporary win over the square planet, not some wholesale rewriting of the rules, he insists. “Given the nature of the Pentagon, if you’re in the middle of a war, you’re going to have to have a lot of direction from the top, to break down bureaucratic barriers and get people to move out with a sense of urgency,” he says.

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