...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.
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.
Moreover, funding for the military would have been entirely consistent with the logic of the stimulus bill, which was to create jobs through government spending. Gates’s unwillingness to advocate using stimulus money to modernize the military may be remembered as one of the most consequential mistakes ever made by a secretary of defense. He can still recover, at least partly. By most estimates, there are up to several hundred billions of stimulus money still unspent. Understandably, House Republicans want to reclaim that money for deficit reduction. The administration will oppose that effort. Gates could propose as a compromise that a portion of the funding be used over the next two to three years to support basic procurement needs, like “resetting” Army and Marine Corps equipment and buying more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. After that period, it is reasonable to hope that the cost of Afghanistan operations will begin to come down. Part of the money currently spent there could be recaptured for modernization, which would allow room for the military to recapitalize while the defense budget still contributes to deficit reduction.
At the end of 2009, Congress created an independent panel to critique the Quadrennial Defense Review that the Pentagon issued in February of 2010. That panel was chaired by former secretary of defense William Perry, a Democrat, and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, a Republican. Its members came from across the political spectrum. Most were appointed by Gates himself.
The independent panel issued its unanimous report on July 29. The panel recognized Gates’s dedication to the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; otherwise its report only can be described as a polite but clear rebuke of his leadership.
The panel discussed the threats facing America, dismissed the Defense Department’s strategic plans as largely irrelevant to those threats, and comprehensively documented the growing gap between the actual strength of the military and the level of capability needed to protect America’s enduring national interests.
The panel sounds an extraordinary warning in the introduction to its report:
The issues raised in the body of this report are sufficiently serious that we believe an explicit warning is appropriate. The aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.
Gates is nearing the end of his service as head of the Pentagon. The fewer battles he has left to fight, the less concerned he need be about political consequences. He still has the time to say that, unless Congress adds substantial funding to modernize the military and fully supports changes necessary to reform the Pentagon, no responsible secretary of defense can continue to guarantee American security within an acceptable margin of risk.
Such a statement by Gates would definitely not be business as usual in Washington. It would make him unpopular in the White House and with many in Congress. But it would end, at long last, the tortured rationalizations by which the Joint Chiefs try to reconcile the eroding position of their services with the decisions of their political masters. It would pave the way for an honest debate about the nature of the post-Cold War world and the sacrifices necessary to protect American security in the 21st century. It would be a huge service to whoever succeeds Bob Gates at the Pentagon. And in the most fundamental sense, he’d be doing his job.