No one questions the contributions to national security of Defense Secretary Robert Gates or his skill at getting his way within the Department of Defense and with Congress. Gates is intelligent, strong-willed, and well-schooled in the ways of Washington. Early in his tenure, he put those talents to good use in implementing the “surge” and reestablishing confidence in our Iraq policy. Gates has concentrated since then on Afghanistan, and to good effect. Though President Obama made a huge mistake in imposing a timetable there, his decisions probably would have been worse without the influence of his defense secretary.
Yet there is real concern in Washington over Gates’s leadership on other issues. It is understandable that he focused his efforts on Afghanistan and Iraq; defense secretaries have to pay attention to the wolf closest to the sled. But Gates is running the Pentagon at a time when other risks facing the United States have been growing while American power relative to those risks has been declining. A review of Gates’s record on issues other than Afghanistan and Iraq shows he has made some key mistakes that have worsened the trend. But he still has time before he leaves the Pentagon sometime next year to set the stage for a renewal of American power and a subsequent increase in the margin of safety for the United States.
Silence During the ‘Stimulus’ Debate
For two years, Secretary Gates has warned that a “resource-constrained environment” requires “hard choices.” On that basis, he has cancelled or sought to cancel dozens of major defense programs, including the F-22 fifth-generation fighter, the C-17 cargo aircraft, the VH-71 helicopter, the Air Force’s combat search and rescue helicopter, and Army combat vehicles. Yet in early 2009, Congress passed a whopping $787 billion “stimulus” bill that contained not a dime to modernize and buy equipment for the military. The record is devoid of evidence that Gates fought for the needs of the military as Congress considered the bill. In fact, many in the Pentagon privately attest that Gates stifled his department’s attempts to seek a share of the stimulus money.
The military is undeniably in a modernization crisis. The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since 1916, the Air Force hasn’t been this small since Pearl Harbor, and the average age of the Air Force inventory is 25 years old. The Army needs to recapitalize equipment lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will need to replace most of its tracked vehicles over the next decade.
Appropriately, Gates has been vocal about his goal to reduce wasteful spending to save money for needed programs. But after nearly four years as defense secretary, spanning the Bush and Obama administrations, he has failed to make progress in solving the Pentagon’s major management issues. Growing military health care costs continue to eat up money desperately needed for modernization; Gates has made little effort and had no success at controlling those expenses. He complains about the spiraling cost of shipbuilding but has yet to find a solution.
Nor has Gates solved ongoing issues with the F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter developed for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. He believes he can use the F-35 as a substitute for the Air Force’s F-22 fighter that he killed, and for the Navy’s F/A‑18 E/F Super Hornet, whose production he wants to end. Whatever the merits of that decision, it means that virtually the entire strike fighter capability of the U.S. military depends on the F-35.
However, the F-35 program continues to be behind schedule and increasingly over budget; the Pentagon announced last year that the cost has grown by roughly $100 billion since 2002, much higher than original estimates. Gates has made a great deal depend on a deeply troubled program that his department can’t seem to fix.
There is no way to rationalize away these trends. They spell disaster for the American military. But the trends could have been reversed for perhaps a third of the stimulus money, spent judiciously over the next 5 to 10 years and coupled with real acquisition reform.