Defense Secretary Gates leaves challenges to his successor
Conventional wisdom has it that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will leave office this year, giving his successor time to build a resume that supports President Barack Obamaâ€™s reelection campaign. If so, that successorâ€™s job will not be easy, and not only because he or she will not enjoy Gatesâ€™s unique advantage of being appointed by both a Republican and a Democratic president.
It will also be because many difficult problems that were problems when Gates took office are problems still. Someâ€”such as the impending clash between budgetary reality and recapitalization PowerPointsâ€”loom bigger than when he took office in 2006.
When most people think of Gates, they think reform. They think of a professional who came in to replace Donald Rumsfeld, the most unpopular secretary since Robert McNamara. But when it comes to how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been waged and the American military posture is structured globally, the final record on Gates has not been written.
In 2006, Gates did two things for the war effort: He ordered the production of $20 billion worth of Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles that commanders in theater had been asking for to protect troops against improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and he began moving more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under Rumsfeld, only 25% of the Pentagonâ€™s UAV fleet was being used in the Central Command (Centcom) area of operations. Since 2006, UAV operations have exploded from 165,000 hr. a year to over 550,000 hr.
But these initiatives have not come without controversy. Some have argued that the MRAP buy was too little, too late, since by the time they hit the streets of Iraq in late 2007, the worst of the IED threat had begun to pass, and the trucks proved too big and heavy for the unpaved roads of Afghanistanâ€”leading to emergency procurement of the lighter MRAP All Terrain Vehicle (MATV). There is no doubt that they saved lives, but now the Pentagon is stuck with 16,000 heavily armored trucks that are difficult to transport.
Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who headed U.S. Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts until his retirement last fall, also critiqued the priorities for airpower set by Gates and the Joint Chiefsâ€”in particular, the rush to generate more 24/7 UAV orbits with Reapers, Predators and Army Gray Eagles.
Deptula warned that the focus should be on the ability to gather intelligence, not numbers of aircraft, and that the Armyâ€™s plan to tie theater-range-capable Gray Eagles to individual divisions would be wasteful. (It was under Gates that the Army fended offâ€™s bid to take over operations of all Predator-and-up UAVs, in 2007.) And while two weapons could not look less alike than the fiberglass Reaper and an MRAP, the two have something in common: outside of counter-insurgent warfare in the Middle East, their utility is limited.
Operationally, in the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates hasnâ€™t always showed the decisive leadership he did on the MRAP and UAV issues. It was in 2006 that commanders in Afghanistan began to warn Washington and Brussels that the insurgency there was regaining momentum, though with the carnage in Iraq, their warnings went largely unheeded because Iraq required resources that might have been used in Afghanistan.
While a standing criticism of Rumsfeldâ€™s tenure as Defense secretary is that he refused to relieve commanders in the field who were not successful, Gates has also left his field commanders alone. Joshua Foust, a defense analyst and author of the recent book Afghanistan Journal, says that in Afghanistan, Gates has â€śgiven the theater commanders carte blanche to create strategy, and he has exercised control of them only when public opprobrium has forced his hand.â€ť
This hasnâ€™t always been the case. In a messy 12-month period in 2009-10, Gates fired two commanders of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. First, Gates terminated Gen. David McKiernan in May 2009, saying â€śfresh thinkingâ€ť was needed urgently, and replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had led the special forces war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But after McChrystal and his subordinates made unflattering remarks about their civilian leaders in a Rolling Stone story, Obama fired him in June 2010, and demoted Gen. David Petraeus from Centcom commander to head the war in Afghanistan. And there was the March 2008 episode when Gates oversaw the resignation of Centcom commander Adm. William Fallon, who spoke out of turn in an article published in Esquire magazine that painted Fallon as the voice of reason, pushing back against hawks in the Bush administration who were clamoring for war with Iran.
On a trip to Afghanistan in December, Gates explained to a group of soldiers and diplomats what he thought the lessons of his two wars would be. â€śFrom the standpoint of the, I think the lesson we have taken from both Iraq and Afghanistan is the need for a whole-of-government effort; that the kinds of conflicts that weâ€™re in and most likely to be engaged in the years to come are going to be those where both a civilian and a military component are required.â€ť
Other problems to be handed to Gatesâ€™s successor concern hardware and technology. Despite ample spending, U.S. services face heavy bills to upgrade and maintain fleets that are trending steadily older, with little relief in sight.
The explanation for this is that a lot of money has gone to programs that are years from delivering capability. High-profile canceled systems have not been replaced. Others have been delayed, which costs less directly but still leaves the services dealing with aging equipment.
One of Gatesâ€™s biggest terminations was the Armyâ€™s Future Combat Systems (FCS) project, canceled in April 2009. Since then, the Army has struggled with the conceptual design of a future Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). In essence, GCV is supposed to do what FCS vehicles would have: be the centerpiece of the future battlefield, as the tank was between the 1930s and 1990s.
Gatesâ€™s time in office has seen the same lack of progress in the Navy, with the massivestealthy land-attack ship cut back to three ships (that do not resemble any other Navy ships, technologically or in concept of operations) and the service planning to build the 1980s-design Burke-class destroyer into the foreseeable future.
The secretaryâ€™s record on airpower includes another high-profile termination, the. His admirers presented this as a rational choice given the promise of the . Gates savaged critics as the F-22 debate continued, stressing that the F-35 would cost half as much as the F-22, a number that doesnâ€™t seem quite as solid now.
After Gates found out early in 2010 that the F-35 was running later than he had been led to expect, he sacked Program Office Director Maj. Gen. David Heinz. But in November, Gatesâ€™s press spokesman said the secretary was â€śfrustratedâ€ť to discover more unresolved issues.
If Gates wants to know why he hadnâ€™t heard the truth about the F-35 earlier, he can look in the mirror. One of the reasons Gates fired USAF chief Gen. Michael Moseley and service Secretary Michael Wynne in June 2008, was that they resisted his preference to kill the F-22 and transfer its budget to the F-35.
In addition, the sacking of a Rand analyst who had questioned the F-35â€™s air-to-air performance, and the willingness of high-level F-35 officials to denigrate other critics, made it easy for Gatesâ€™s top officialsâ€”Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and acquisition chief John Youngâ€”to squelch a fall 2008 report by the independent Joint Estimating Team that accurately predicted JSF delays.
Gates has delayed the development of a long-range strike (LRS) aircraftâ€”which seemed imminent when he arrivedâ€”and instead spent time on a â€śfamily of systemsâ€ť approach.
A result of delay is that the procurement â€śbow waveâ€ť becomes steeper each year and upgrades become essential and more expensive. With the F-22 cutback and delays to the F-35, USAF is forced to retrofit active, electronically scanned array radars toand as older systems become unsupportable.
That is why proposals to revoke the growth in the defense budget that happened in the 2000s look as drastic as they do. Funding the plans on the books today will call for defense spending to stay where it is, even if programs stay on budget. Reducing expenditures will call for major program cuts such as those recommended by the presidentâ€™s bipartisan budget commission, which included termination of the F-35B, reducedpurchases and major changes to other programs.
Not all of these things are Gatesâ€™s fault. But the disturbing picture that the Pentagon sees today is the result of actions by people who work for him.