From his earliest days as secretary of defense, Robert Gates kept a little countdown clock in his briefcase. It ticked off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until January 20, 2009, when President George W. Bush would leave office and Gates could retire to his secluded home in the Pacific Northwest, 43 years after entering public life. He'd be punting some tough issues to the next guy. But that wasn't his problem.
Until it was. Barack Obama prevailed on him to stay—in the midst of economic turmoil and two ongoing wars, the new president needed a low-key, no-surprises steward at the Pentagon.
That's not what the president got. More than five months after his countdown clock hit zero, Gates has turned out to be neither a caretaker nor merely the guy tasked with cleaning up the mess Donald Rumsfeld made of the Department of Defense. Instead, Robert Gates has emerged as the most radical secdef in generations, upending the politics of national security, scrapping the traditional ways gear gets to troops, and defying the military-industrial complex.
Gates denies all that. Mostly. As he leans over a small desk crammed into a cabin on board a modified 757, he comes across as just another Washington big shot. His starched white shirt has two pens in the breast pocket. His blue jeans are hiked up a bit too high on his waist, like he's been wearing suits too long to remember where dungarees belong. He waves off talk of massive change, of revolutions in military affairs.
Rather, he offers what sounds like common sense: The military needs to fight today's battles, not tomorrow's. Generals are always fighting the last war, the old saying goes, but in reality the Department of Defense has the opposite problem. While a relative handful of troops fight and die "downrange" in war zones, a massive bureaucracy develops strategies, spends money, and—most especially—builds weapons, all in the name of theoretical, decades-hence showdowns. It's a $500 billion perpetual motion machine.
Every secdef talks about changing the Pentagon, then almost immediately gets stymied by bureaucratic resistance. Only this time, Gates' talk is turning into action—a Gates Doctrine, if you will. Its core tenets: Base policy on the wars that are most likely to happen and the technology that's most likely to work. Stop trying to buy the future when you can't afford the present. With a White House veteran's feel for Washington, a love of policy, a penchant for secrecy, and an old man's sense of the ticking clock, the silver-haired administrator has become the most dangerous person in the military-industrial complex. "I've referred to myself as the secretary of war, because we're at war," he says in a nasal Kansas twang, raising his voice over the roar of the plane's engines. "This is a department that principally plans for war. It's not organized to wage war. And that's what I'm trying to fix."
On the Sunday before the midterm elections in 2006, while guests mingled in the main house at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, for the first lady's 60th birthday party, Bush took Gates into his private study and asked him to take over the Defense Department. Gates was a national security pro, having served in the White House and at the CIA for six presidents. He was a trusted protégé of Bush Senior and had continued to sit on several important advisory panels even after leaving DC in 1993.
As Bob Woodward told it in his 2008 book The War Within, Gates and the president talked about increasing the size of the Army, halting unneeded weapons programs, the unfinished fight in Afghanistan. But Gates knew only one topic really mattered: Iraq. The country Bush had set out to liberate was turning into The Road Warrior, with more bombs. Donald Rumsfeld's approach—"go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want"—had helped fuel the chaos. All the American power and prestige Gates had fought for decades to preserve was disappearing. He took the job.
When Gates arrived at the Pentagon in December 2006, without aides or entourage, he learned that few people in the building shared his sense of urgency about Iraq. Part of this was institutional: The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 essentially splits the military in two—relatively small, regional commands do the fighting, and everyone else does the conceptualizing, training, and gear-buying. But the bigger hurdle was attitude. Iraq was important, the Pentagon's prevailing wisdom went, but so were a whole range of other conflicts just over the horizon. "There wasn't any kind of dedicated place in the institution where people were coming to work every day saying, 'What can I do to help the people downrange today?'" Gates says. "And that got me—" His lips tighten. His eyes narrow. He takes a breath. "It made me very impatient."
Just two months into Gates' tenure, The Washington Post revealed that Walter Reed Army Medical Center was keeping wounded soldiers in moldy, mouse- and cockroach-infested squalor. Gates fired the general in charge. Then he fired the secretary of the Army and forced out the Army's surgeon general. On Rumsfeld's watch, no one got fired for incompetence—not even after the Abu Ghraib prison debacle. Gates was clearly different. "I can't tell you how cathartic, how refreshing that was," says Ryan Henry, a top aide to both secretaries.
But replacing bureaucrats is easier than diverting whole bureaucracies. Gates found that out as soon as he began acting on his promise to focus on waging war, not planning for it. He knew that soldiers were driving thousands of Humvees with substandard armor and that improvised explosive devices, which easily pierced the vehicles' thin skins, had caused 70 percent of US casualties in Iraq. The Army's answer to the pressing need for hardened vehicles was to keep pouring billions of dollars into Future Combat Systems, a program that was supposed to yield a next-generation networked, lightly armored infantry vehicle by, oh, 2016 or so.
Meanwhile, in one part of Iraq, hard-shelled trucks called MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) had withstood hundreds of attacks without a single US fatality. But in May 2007, just 64 were delivered into the field—they were considered too big to use anywhere but Iraq, and the Army already had Future Combat Systems going. Gates learned about MRAPs not from his generals but from an April 2007 article in USA Today. "Nobody wanted the things, because they were afraid they'd wind up with thousands of them in a big car park at the end of the war," Gates says. "My attitude was: If you're in a war, it's all in. I don't care what we have left over at the end."
So Gates ordered a task force to figure out how to deliver 1,000 MRAPs a month by 2008. This was, to put it gently, crazy talk. Typically, defense contractors crank out just a few hundred armored vehicles a year. But task force chief John Young set up a plan to buy 17,000 specialized tires per month (Michelin, the sole supplier, was producing less than 1,000) and 21,000 tons per month of high-strength ballistic steel. It would eventually cost $25 billion—a lot of money, even at the Pentagon.
Gates put Young's plan into practice. He asked Congress for permission to expand manufacturing lines with $1.2 billion from other programs, and he activated a rarely used Cold War law to force steel makers to prioritize sales to the Pentagon's MRAP manufacturers. Monthly MRAP deliveries climbed to 1,189 by the end of the year. Today, there are 13,000 MRAPs deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. IED attacks have gone up, but in the 325 bombings involving MRAPs in Afghanistan so far this year, only five servicemembers have died.
The Gates Doctrine was emerging: Spare nothing to win today's war. Don't let the future distract you from the present day.
As a veteran of the national security and intelligence communities, Gates is both a defense outsider and a Washington insider. The son of a Wichita, Kansas, auto parts dealer, he was an Eagle Scout who dreamed of becoming a doctor—dissecting rats and cats in his parents' basement to get ready. He ended up majoring in history at William & Mary and then landed in the master's program at Indiana University. In his memoir, Gates claimed he met with the CIA recruiter there on a lark. "I thought I could get a free trip to Washington," he wrote.
Gates spent eight years as a junior analyst and an Air Force intelligence officer, then joined Nixon's National Security Council staff in 1974. Administrations changed, and political parties swapped control of the White House, but Gates remained. On the old boys' network, he had become a central node. He advised Carter on the Iranian hostage crisis, sized up Gorbachev for Reagan, and wrote George H. W. Bush's war aims for Operation Desert Storm.
All the while, Gates was learning how to bend a bureaucracy to his will. As a deputy national security adviser to the first President Bush, Gates took charge of the Deputies Committee, an interagency group responsible for the nuts and bolts of national security policy. The committee was a mess: rambling, inconclusive, a haven for back-channelers and leakers. Gates reined it in, ensuring no meeting lasted longer than an hour and that every one ended with a decision. Even the scuttling of his 1987 nomination to head the CIA didn't stop him. (Opponents alleged Gates, then the CIA's number two, hadn't done enough to stop the Iran-Contra scheme.) When Bush nominated him again four years later, Gates defused his critics with self-effacing humor and humility and was confirmed easily.
He left government in 1993; about a decade later he became head of Texas A&M and, once again, cleaned house. He replaced underperforming administrators with more- scholarly-minded deans, sending a message to an insular bureaucracy to focus on academics. A&M became one of the top public- service universities in the country and created hundreds of new academic positions.
Such a record should have told the current Pentagon establishment what to expect from their new boss. But to them, he turned out to be inscrutable. In some meetings, Gates would rarely speak; in others, he told stories from his Cold War glory days or cracked jokes about Washington's stuffed shirts. Rumsfeld was famous for intimidating people and bruising egos; Gates never interrupts. He can be stiff and reserved, until emotion comes gushing out. During one speech, recalling the death of a marine, he nearly broke down in tears, surprising even longtime friends. Gates doesn't travel much on the Beltway's social circuit, instead spending off-hours with his wife and a small cadre of aides. He smokes cigars, drinks Belvedere martinis with a twist (the first President Bush weaned him from gin to vodka), and watches trashy movies—Transformers and Wolverine were recent favorites.
Gates is also unforgivingly tough on failure. In August 2007, an Air Force unit mistakenly flew six nuclear warheads across the US on a B-52—a cardinal sin to an old Cold Warrior like Gates. Later, when Air Force chief of staff Mike Moseley briefed Gates on the incident, Gates asked him how many generals were going to get fired over the mishap. Moseley was taken aback; he said he wanted to spend time fact-finding first. More than 90 officers and airmen were eventually relieved or reassigned.
But there was a bigger problem with the Air Force. The service saw itself as the high tech deterrent against an apocalyptic encounter with another superpower. Current conflicts—and weapons for those conflicts—got short shrift. Unmanned aircraft like the Predator are cheap (compared to planes with pilots on board) and flexible, and they provide fast, useful intelligence to troops. But despite having been at war for nearly six years, the Air Force had fewer than a dozen Predator air patrols, or orbits, over Iraq and Afghanistan. US commanders were getting increasingly frustrated with the shortage.
In April 2008, a second task force—headed by Brad Berkson, a former partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company—investigated drone operations headquarters at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Berkson found a host of inefficiencies limiting drone time in the air. They were flying for only 20 hours a day, and some of the Nevada ground control stations used for practice in the daytime were simply shut down at night, instead of being used to control drones over the battlefield.
The Air Force brass thought the idea of the head of the entire freakin' military sending staff to spend this much time down in the weeds was, in the words of one former senior Air Force officer, "just amateurish." Gates found their recalcitrance equally frustrating. "I had to go outside the bureaucracy to get any kind of urgent action," Gates says. In late April, he gave a talk at the Air War College, one of the service's intellectual hubs, and told the assembled fliers that reform was going too slowly: "Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth." Gates knew that what he said was impolitic; after the speech he reached Moseley at his father-in-law's home in Texas to assure him that he hadn't meant to single out the general or the Air Force.
Moseley got the message anyway. The Air Force increased the number of drones over war zones; today there are 37 orbits over Afghanistan and Iraq. But drones weren't at the heart of the Air Force's strategy. What the service really wanted was the F-22 Raptor. At $250 million a pop, this next-gen superjet is unquestionably a champion dogfighter, all but invisible to radar and able to fly at least Mach 1.5. It's decades ahead of anything out of Moscow or Beijing.
Against insurgents and terrorists, however, F-22s are of little use compared to drones. So Gates wanted to cap F-22 production at 187, a level set by Rumsfeld, and emphasize drone use. Yet Moseley and Michael Wynne, secretary of the Air Force, kept lobbying for more. Raptors, they said, were essential replacements for the aging US aircraft fleet.
A couple of weeks after his speech at the Air War College, Gates met with the Joint Chiefs and a few other officials to talk about a strategy document. It included a line about the US accepting some risk in fights with superpowers in order to win asymmetric, unconventional conflicts. Moseley, a former fighter pilot, said that such a risk was unacceptable, that he needed those Raptors. Representatives from the Army, Navy, and Marines all registered similar discontent. They wanted their future war gear, too. "They kept making the case over and over. You would've thought someone's children we're being held hostage, how they carried on," a former senior defense official says.
Gates sat through it silently for about an hour. Finally, he told them he wouldn't ask Congress for any more Raptors. "It was like a cold shower. Like, 'Wow, what just happened here?'" another former official says.
Wynne and Moseley took one more crack at Gates at yet another meeting. The secdef wouldn't budge. "You know, Buzz," Wynne told Moseley afterward, "I think that just sealed our fate."
An internal DOD investigation into how the Air Force had accidentally shipped to Taiwan four fuses used in nuclear missiles didn't help. Gates read it and asked for Wynne's and Moseley's immediate resignations, but the fuses may have been just an excuse. "It was so spylike, to claim it was about the nuclear incident," a former Air Force official familiar with the situation says. "It was an opportunity. It had all the right labels."
By 2009, changes to the status quo, combined with a successful counterinsurgency push in Iraq, resulted in adjusted attitudes at the Pentagon. The new Air Force chiefs were talking about how awesome drones were. Pentagon staffers were talking about asymmetric war. Anyone discussing showdowns with China or Russia tended to use the same theoretical tone one might employ in considering war with Alpha Centauri.
Still, these changes were marginal compared to the $500 billion-a-year spending machine. Now, $300 billion of that was sacrosanct, going to troops, operations, and maintenance. But the rest went to the Pentagon's deeply odd process of developing and acquiring new weapons. Among the ongoing projects when Gates came aboard: a constellation of five "transformational" communications satellites that talk to one another using a technology that hasn't been shown to work, a laser-equipped 747 designed to zap incoming missiles (which had its first test fire last summer after 13 years in development), a presidential helicopter with a kitchen that can heat up meals after a nuclear war, and Future Combat Systems—the Army's $160 billion, grand modernization project, due to actually get high tech gear to troops by 2011. "You ever read Superman comic books?" asks Eric Edelman, the former Pentagon policy chief. "Well, acquisitions is like the Bizarro universe. Everything is reversed; the world is square, not round."
Every secdef from McNamara to Rumsfeld tried to cut over-budget, long-delayed weapons programs. Usually, though, their efforts leaked to the press and Congress, who hit them with a tsunami of tears over lost jobs and weakened national potency. Starting in 1989, then-secdef Dick Cheney (before he became a supervillain) tried four times to ax the Osprey, an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and cruises like a plane. It took $26 billion, 30 dead crewmembers, and 25 years of development, but the Osprey eventually flew. Even Cheney couldn't stop it.
Gates thought his circumstances gave him a better shot. Even amid two wars and a collapsing economy, he had already lived through one scandal, and he was the only cabinet secretary to serve both Bush and Obama. "I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity," Gates says. He told his aides to forget about the economy, about generals and defense contractors and all the other extraneous political bullshit. "Let me worry about the politics," he said.
Then he made his deliberations covert. "I don't want this leaking out in pieces," he told his staff. "We'll get eaten alive." For the first time, everyone involved in the process had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Gates' team set up an exclusive reading room for the budget documents. Only top-ranking generals—four stars—were allowed inside, and they were not permitted to take the briefings out.
Starting on January 6, Gates and a handful of advisers began meeting regularly. "Everything is on the table," Gates told them. The group would get a white paper on a given issue—missile defense, fighter aircraft, ground forces—and Gates would review the options on what to keep or kill. Gates wouldn't say outright what he wanted to do with a given program; that way, no one would have details to leak. But everyone knew cuts were coming. Under the Bush administration, Pentagon spending had gone up 75 percent in eight years. "You need a cut to force the institution to make changes to the system," says Berkson, who coordinated the budget deliberations. "You need that pressure."
In the end, Gates cut the satellites, the nuke-proof helicopter, the laser-firing jumbo jet prototype, the Future Combat Systems trucks, and, most symbolic, the F-22. Each one of these strike-throughs meant billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost in dozens of congressional districts. Taken together, they represented the biggest reorg of the Pentagon in a generation.
After the April budget announcement, Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said that Gates was "gutting our military." One congressional committee after another voted to keep building F-22s and other Bizarro projects. Gates and the Pentagon "need to learn who's in charge, and the Congress is," said Democratic representative Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii. Not even Obama's threats to veto any budget with F-22s had an effect. The jet had become a symbol of resistance to the Gates Doctrine. By one tally, the Raptor had 45 supporters in the Senate. Gates had only 23 backers.
In mid-July, the weekend before the crucial vote, the White House and Gates' team started lobbying. Gates assured senator John Kerry that the Massachusetts Air National Guard wouldn't be severely impacted, and he reportedly warned the CEO of Raptor-maker Lockheed Martin that if his company lobbied in favor of the F-22, Gates would cut other Lockheed contracts. The new Air Force secretary told Wyoming senator Mike Enzi he didn't want any more Raptors anyway. The following Tuesday, the Senate voted 58-40 to stop production of the Raptors. Gates had won.
Aboard his plane, however, the secretary tries to downplay the importance of the budget votes. This is a onetime, temporary win over the square planet, not some wholesale rewriting of the rules, he insists. "Given the nature of the Pentagon, if you're in the middle of a war, you're going to have to have a lot of direction from the top, to break down bureaucratic barriers and get people to move out with a sense of urgency," he says.
Now the secretary of war is working on phase two of his plan, speeding up a once-every-four-years grand strategy review and working on even bigger changes in next year's budget. For decades, the Pentagon prepped itself for a straightforward set of superpower wars because ... well, those were the battles the US knew how to prepare for. It bought exquisite high tech weapon systems because they had the coolest capabilities, not because they necessarily countered any threats.
At long last, a changing world may be changing the Pentagon. Gates says he's trying to build an organization prepared for threats that defy present-day categorization—terror groups with bigger and better weapons and organization, and superpowers like China and Russia adopting the tactics of guerrillas. "Conflict in the future will slide up and down the spectrum," Gates says. "You're not only going to have irregular warfare over here and high-intensity conventional war over here." But every case will still require a pragmatic approach to strategy and equipment, even if that seems to clash with Gates' "all in" approach to war. Stanley McChrystal, the man Gates named in May to be top general in Afghanistan, has asked for more troops. Gates is "deeply skeptical"—his understanding of the Soviet experience there tells him more grunts may not be the way to defeat the Taliban.
After three years under Gates, the Defense Department is finally learning the right lesson: You wage war with the enemies you have, not the ones you wish you had.
(((if only the same could be said for military medical care.....i.e. use and abuse of feres doctrine, use of position, lack of seperation between conus medical care and combat zone medical care)))