War Stories

Gates’ Plan To Fix the Pentagon

The now-and-future defense secretary’s two critical ideas for reforming the military.

Robert Gates

It is unusual for an incoming Cabinet officer to spell out a precise agenda or to define the standards by which his performance should be judged before the president has even been sworn in. But that’s exactly what now-and-future Defense Secretary Robert Gates has just done with an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs.

Gates probably didn’t set out to do that when he wrote the article, which was based on a speech he delivered at the National Defense University in September, before the election had taken place.

Yet the article, titled “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” urges his successor at the Pentagon to take particular actions. Now that he’s turned out to be his successor, we can watch how closely he follows his advice.

His first test will come in early February, when he submits the Defense Department’s budget for fiscal year 2010. Much of his article deals with ways to restructure that budget. Had Obama picked someone else as defense secretary, we’d have to wait another year for signs of change, but Gates has been at the helm for two years now: He knows what he wants to do, knows how to get there (he’s done a bit of it already), and appreciates the obstacles that remain. If he’s inclined to plunge in, he’ll do it from the get-go, while the Obama honeymoon is still on and the mood for change is strong.

The article’s main point is that, given limited resources, the military services need to shift their priorities away from “baroque” high-tech weapons designed for threats of the distant future (or left over from Cold War premises) and toward low-cost weapons that are effective for the wars we’re fighting now and will likely fight in the foreseeable future.

Gates allows that there has to be a balance between these two goals, but he notes that there is currently no constituency in the Pentagon or elsewhere for the latter types of weapons. He recalls that it was necessary to go outside the bureaucratic process to build and quickly deploy the MRAP armored troop-carrying vehicle—which provided much greater protection against roadside bombs in Iraq—or to make more efficient use of camera-carrying drones, like the Predator, for locating insurgents. (He doesn’t note that he was the one who rammed these programs through the resistant Army and Air Force bureaucracies.)

More broadly, he writes that there are limits to U.S. military power and that the Pentagon should devote more resources and attention—and promote more of its officers—to train, advise, and equip the security forces of allies rather than doing the bulk of the fighting ourselves.

In short, Gates calls for a dramatic change in the Pentagon’s “rewards structure”—”the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted … and how personnel are trained.”

So, what changes should Gates make two months from now, in the FY 2010 defense budget, that would indicate, to the services, the Congress, and the public, that he is doing what he has said the next secretary should do?

Cancel or sharply cut the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighter planes. A year ago, Gates caused a ruckus by halting the F-22 program at its current level of 187 planes, half as many as the Air Force wanted. He should stick to that decision. He may get the support of his new Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, whose background isn’t in fighter planes but in airlift: i.e., in planes that transport ground troops and their weapons to the battlefield.

Practically speaking, the Army, Air Force, and Navy have to get a roughly equal share of the budget, otherwise all hell will break loose. So cut some of the Navy’s budget, too (in his article, Gates says that the Navy’s fleet, even in its reduced state, is larger than that of the 13 next-largest navies combined, and 11 of those are allies). Get the Air Force into other missions besides air-to-air combat (for which there presently is no threat): Build more C-17 cargo planes (Schwartz’s specialty); start developing a new bomber (for dropping loads of “smart bombs” very accurately); bring back the A-10 attack plane.

Start an Army and Marine advisory corps to train soldiers to assist foreign armies. A few years ago, Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the Army’s most creative officers, was put in charge of a unit to do just that, but Nagl recently quit the military, in part because the brass wasn’t taking his unit or the mission seriously. Gates was distressed when Nagl left. In a few speeches (and in the Foreign Affairs article), he has spoken admiringly of “some dissident colonels” asking the right questions; Nagl is one of the colonels he had in mind. So give Nagl a job in the Pentagon to organize an advisory corps on a grand level.

Get Congress to suspend the peacetime promotion system in which talented captains and colonels are forced to wait many years to get the command posts they deserve, and could usefully lead from, now. (We are fighting two wars, right? We don’t have a wartime military draft, nor are we likely to get one, for good reason. But let’s at least have a wartime military promotion system.) Last year, Gates brought Gen. David Petraeus out of Iraq to chair the Army’s promotion board—precisely so that a number of highly creative colonels, who had been passed over before, could finally advance to the rank of one-star general. The trick worked. Now he should get systematic about it.

Will Gates take these steps? A few hours after President-elect Obama announced that Gates would stay on as defense secretary, Gates gave an interview to Aviation Week, in which he said that he will focus on cleaning up the weapons-procurement system. My guess is that Obama said that he’ll back him up on this—not because I have inside information (I don’t), but because I doubt that Gates, who has been desperate to leave Washington and retire to his lakeside home in the Pacific Northwest practically since he arrived at the Pentagon, would have agreed to stay without Obama’s backing.

As has often been reported, Gates is an old-school patriot, but that doesn’t mean he’ll do anything just because the president asks him to. A year before he stepped up to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, Gates turned down George W. Bush’s plea to become the new director of national intelligence because he wouldn’t be allowed to hire or fire anyone—that is, because he realized the job didn’t involve real power. In his two years under President Bush, Gates has used his power mainly to clean up the mess that Rumsfeld left behind—the demoralization of the Joint Chiefs, the distrust on Capitol Hill, the dysfunction of the National Security Council. Maybe under President Obama, Gates will have the power to make the changes that until now he’s just talked about.