The Gates Legacy


The Gates Legacy

Dec 13th, 2010 10 min read

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

Jim Talent is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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.

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.

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. 

In any event, Gates should stop using “resource constraints” as an excuse for cutting defense programs. Given the orgy of social spending by the Obama administration, he is only contributing to a level of disingenuousness unusual even for Washington.

In September 2009, the Obama administration suddenly cancelled America’s commitment to place missile interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland. This was clearly an attempt to appease the Russians. Ever since—and in particular, after it was clear the United States got nothing from the Russians in return for such a gigantic concession—the administration has attempted to justify its betrayal of the Czechs and Poles on military grounds. The administration has claimed that a sea-based alternative (which it hurriedly is attempting to develop) is superior to land-based interceptors. Gates has allowed his credibility and that of the Defense Department to be used to promote this rationalization.

Gates contends that the long-range ICBM threat from Iran has slowed while U.S. capacity to defend against short- and mid-range missiles has developed faster than anticipated. Therefore, he argues, it was safe to abandon our arrangement with Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Yet the Pentagon repeatedly has said Iran is in rapid pursuit of long-range capability and, with foreign assistance, will be able to develop and test a missile capable of reaching U.S. shores by 2015. The interceptors in Eastern Europe would have been capable of shooting down such a missile. The administration’s sea-based plan, which Gates endorsed, will not have that capability until around 2020, if the plan ever comes on line.

To this point, the administration hasn’t been able to answer the questions Congress has asked about the costs or timetable for deployment of the sea-based alternative—not to mention the ability of the surface fleet to add yet another mission to a stretched force without getting more ships and other resources.

In short, the Polish and Czech missile interceptors were not a redundant capability. That’s why the Bush administration, with Gates’s support, pursued them so strongly. In any event, if there is one place where the United States needs redundancy, it is in the ability to defeat—and so deter​—a nuclear attack. If the Obama administration really had been concerned about missile defense in Europe, it would have augmented rather than replaced the land-based interceptors.

Gates has failed to stand up for missile defense in other respects. With his approval, the administration reduced the overall budget for the missile shield last year by $1.6 billion, or 15 percent. Specifically, the administration:

♦ scaled back the planned number of ground-based “midcourse” interceptors in Alaska and California from 44 to 30;

♦ terminated the Multiple Kill Vehicle program for defeating an enemy’s countermeasures;

♦ deferred purchase of a second Airborne Laser aircraft;

♦ killed the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program for intercepting ballistic missiles in the boost phase; and

♦ purged funds for the space “test bed” for missile defense.

There is a reason why North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and Iran is seeking to do so. Nuclear weapons empower rogue regimes to use aggressive tactics in accomplishing their regional ambitions. That leads to ongoing conflict and the prospect of escalation into major confrontations. A fully deployed missile shield would neuter that threat and reduce the danger that the nuclear cascade will spread to other countries.

Under the circumstances, the missile defense shield may be the single most important program in the Pentagon budget. Secretary Gates should strongly and publicly support full funding and accelerated deployment of the system.

Silence on China

America’s secretary of defense has two main jobs. As a senior official in the chain of command, the defense secretary supports military commanders in executing the missions of the nation. Equally important, he must plan and shape the force of the future. And since it takes a long time to develop and deploy new equipment, the Pentagon’s planning horizon is 20 years down the road.

Gates conflates the two responsibilities, to the detriment in particular of our naval and air services. He often refers to the need to “rebalance the force” to better fight the wars of today. If he means only that the services should use current assets to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the statement is unremarkable.

But that isn’t all that Gates means. He uses the current counterinsurgency missions as an excuse for not sustaining programs that are necessary to ensure the United States will be able to contain Russia, Iran, and especially the growing power of China.

One example is Gates’s treatment of the Navy. Its size cut in half since the Reagan years, the Navy at 288 ships is smaller today than at any time since 1916. And it is still shrinking: At the current rate of shipbuilding, the Navy will be reduced to between 210 and 240 ships. No knowledgeable person believes a Navy that size can perform its global missions.


The latest official estimate, by the chief of naval operations in 2006, held that a 313-ship Navy was the minimum necessary for American security. The current chief has endorsed that number. In a speech before the Navy League earlier this year, however, Gates dismissed the idea that the Navy is too weak. He’s since announced that he would not increase the shipbuilding budget and in fact would cut more programs. He already has ended purchases of the next-generation DDG-1000 destroyers; extended production of the next carrier from four years to five; killed the MPF-A large-deck aviation ship and mobile landing platform; and delayed indefinitely the next-generation cruiser, CG(X).

In his speech, Gates dismissed concerns by noting that the world’s other navies, taken as a whole, have shrunk even more. But that is true largely because America’s major European allies have reduced their naval capabilities since the end of the Cold War.

The Chinese, however, aren’t shrinking their navy. Within about five years, their fleet of modern submarines will nearly equal ours. China also is building its first aircraft carrier and has announced plans to build a new class of destroyers. These are two clear signals China seeks the ability not only to hold the U.S. Navy at bay in the Western Pacific, but to project power around the world.

Time to Speak Plainly

For political and practical reasons, Gates largely has escaped criticism during his tenure as defense secretary. Democrats recognize that his prestige is necessary to prop up Obama’s national security credentials. Republicans fear that if Gates is weakened, the administration’s policies may get worse. And to be fair, many of Gates’s questionable actions may have been maneuvers to maintain credibility with the president so that Gates could have more impact on issues, such as Afghanistan, that he rightly cares most about.

But there is a time to maneuver and a time for plain speaking. The time for Gates to speak plainly has come.

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.

Jim Talent is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Weekly Standard