By Philip Ewing
Robert Gates is winding up one of the most significant tenures of any secretary of defense. But as he contemplates his departure date, the work is piling up for his successor.
For all the big plans Gates has unveiled this year — conditioning the broad military-industrial complex to expect a future of flat budgets, making the Pentagon relatively slimmer and more efficient and trying to knock off programs that have proved stubbornly popular with Congress — he won’t be in office to see them through, raising some doubts about whether all of President Barack Obama’s defense reforms will materialize.
Gates has been deliberately vague about when he’ll step aside. He has assured lawmakers that he’ll stay around for “many months,” but he also has said he plans to retire by the end of the year. One theory among some defense watchers is that Gates wants to stay until at least July to help oversee the beginning of the planned U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. But he and his camp have been careful to give no clues.
The information vacuum has created a standing game of Defense secretary roulette in Washington’s national security circles, where almost any potential name can seem like a sure thing or a long shot, depending on the day and the person offering it. One roster of potential candidates includes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she is not interested; Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent; Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat; Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy; Navy Secretary Ray Mabus; and John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton administration.
With whoever Obama nominates, it’s quite likely he’ll aim to retain one of Gates’s most valuable qualities: his reputation for independence and his credibility with Republicans. A carryover from the Bush administration, Gates has helped insulate Obama from traditional attacks that Democratic presidents are “weak” on defense or national security, even as he has gone after congressionally popular weapons programs.
For now, the most familiar part of Gates’s proposals — $78 billion in “cuts” to the defense budget — also is the least understood: The “cuts” are a projected lack of growth for the next five years, not an immediate reduction in spending, and they depend on a wide set of assumptions to become real.
As a political tactic, the administration’s plans have been a victory. Obama and Gates have realized “a public relations coup for DoD, which needed to demonstrate a bigger commitment to fiscal austerity in order to pre-empt members of Congress who are increasingly vocal about deficit reduction,” wrote Center for a New American Security analyst Travis Sharp.
Not only will the budget in question have to clear the normal hurdles in Congress, it also would depend on Gates’s successor to make sure many of its longer-term elements come into being. Gates acknowledged before the House Armed Services Committee recently that there are plenty of reasons the Pentagon’s projected “savings” may not happen.
For example, he said, some of the projected lack of growth will come from a planned reduction in the size of the Army and Marine Corps, starting in fiscal 2015. But if the government of Iraq asks for large numbers of U.S. troops to stay after the end of this year, or if allied commanders’ “fragile” progress in Afghanistan doesn’t hold, the Pentagon may decide not to cut all its planned 27,000 soldiers and 15,000 Marines — or it may not cut any of them.
The Pentagon also plans to shift money internally by cancelling some programs, pursuing other cost-saving “efficiencies” and using the balance to fund Congress-pleasing projects, including a new bomber for the Air Force or a new ballistic missile submarine for the Navy. All of that is also vulnerable to unforeseen events.
“With a lot of these efficiency initiatives, these are projected savings, this is what they’re estimating they’re going to save in the future. What quite often happens is that the savings don’t materialize like we expected,” said Todd Harrison, a longtime defense budget watcher at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
And all of this assumes Congress will follow Gates’s budget proposals and pass them. Gates and his top lieutenants have howled at the prospect of month-to-month continuing resolutions or a yearlong CR that forces the Pentagon to stay at its 2010 level.
Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale has said a CR could force the Pentagon into a badly dysfunctional management situation, in which it would lose the multiyear procurement deals it has with some contractors and could even be forced to do inefficient monthlong deals with vendors.
Congress also could undermine the proposed Pentagon savings by refusing to make some of the most significant and deep cuts. If that’s the case, one of Gates’s biggest individual targets — the second engine for the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet — might survive yet another brush with oblivion.
Earlier this month, the House voted to defund the $450 million allocated last year for the program, called the “competitive engine” by its manufacturer, General Electric, and the “extra engine” by Gates. But the Senate has yet to act, and GE and its allies are fighting hard to restore funding.
If that happens, Gates has vowed to unilaterally end the program, setting up a showdown with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
Of course, with Gates’s time as secretary coming to an end, Boehner and McKeon may just try to wait him out.
Not everything is up in the air.
Gates has made progress in laying the groundwork to end of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Military commanders have begun training their troops. And the largest of the military branches, the Army, expects to have most of its soldiers trained on the repeal by the end of August.
When the service chiefs certify to Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen that they’ve trained most of their forces on the new policy of open service, the Pentagon’s top leaders will notify Obama, and after a 60-day waiting period, the policy will expire.
That timeline suggests it’s likely the next defense secretary will have to grapple with any internal fallout that comes from the integration of the first round of openly gay recruits.
Another move that looks as though it will stick is Gates’s decision to cancel the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a high-speed armored personnel carrier that had ballooned many times over its original cost.
After years of internal battles, Gates and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos announced they agreed on the end of the EFV because, at its projected costs, it would have consumed almost all the Marines’ budget for ground vehicles, leaving nothing for the thousands of other vehicles the Corps needs to buy.
The fate of the EFV represents what may be Gates’s last triumph over what he has decried as the “next-war-itis” of the defense establishment, a perpetual eagerness to buy more complicated and expensive weapons whether or not they’re usable today.
But another major issue is whether that philosophy will endure at DoD after Gates leaves. That, too, will depend on his successor.