Some conservatives who welcomed President Obama’s decision to keep Robert M. Gates as defense secretary are already having second thoughts.
Decisions in the first 100 days of the new administration regarding future weapons systems have dismayed members of the Air Force fighter community and others who had considered the former CIA chief one of their own.
Baker Springs, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, described Mr. Gates’ first months under Mr. Obama as “not very good” and a reversion to policies that weakened U.S. defenses.
“We see a consistent chipping away at the defense budget at the top line level, and the structure of the defense budget internally favoring personnel and operations accounts over modernization,” Mr. Springs said. “I think he is lining the department up for another procurement holiday when we just came out of one in the 1990s.”
Supporters of Mr. Gates say he is only following administration priorities in moving money - at a time of huge budget constraints and two ongoing wars - from expensive future weapons systems to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The recommendations made by Secretary Gates represent an important first step in balancing the department’s wants with our nation’s needs,” said Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, who has a big say in Pentagon spending as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. “For far too long, the Defense Department has failed to address these challenges, and I applaud the secretary for conducting this comprehensive review.”
Core defense spending, projected at $534 billion in 2010, will stay relatively flat for the next five years, counting inflation, according to spending outlines from the White House Office of Management and Budget. At a budget briefing Thursday, Pentagon officials declined to discuss spending beyond fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1.
This means that the four military branches will have to cut weapons programs if they are to fund increased personnel and costs for Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Gates announced billions of dollars in weapons cuts at an April 6 news conference.
Anger in the Air Force
His decisions - which still have to survive a congressional gauntlet - upset the Army and sparked a furor in the Air Force.Shortly after Mr. Gates’ announcement, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, a career transport pilot who also flew special operations attack planes, conducted a video conference call with major Air Force commanders around the world and at Air Force Air Combat Command in Langley. Two people who spoke with those participating but asked not to be named to avoid compromising the generals said a number of the generals expressed strong objections to the cuts.
“They were not happy,” said one of those briefed on the call. “They felt a sense of betrayal. They asked, ‘Why is all this money and programs being taken out of the aircraft?’”
A spokeswoman for Gen. Schwartz declined to comment on the conversation.
At the Pentagon, senior spokesman Bryan Whitman said both Gen. Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley agreed with Mr. Gates’ decisions and had published a letter to that effect.
A former senior official who worked with Mr. Gates under the Bush administration but asked not to be named because he now works in the defense industry, said Mr. Gates appears to favor the advice of civilian advisers over that of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The former official said Mr. Gates has developed a vision of how the future military should look without first ordering a broad strategic review of future threats.
At a budget briefing May 7, Vice Adm. Steve Stanley, a director on the staff of the Joint Chiefs, said Mr. Gates conducted an unprecedented number of budget conversations with his major commanders before deciding on the cuts.
“The service chiefs were part of all these discussions, and none of them are shrinking violets,” Adm. Stanley said. “They all spoke up. The [combatant commanders’] involvement in the large-group sessions that the secretary hosted was larger than I’ve ever seen. … I expect, in fact, that that emphasis by Secretary Gates is going to continue through the [Quadrennial Defense Review]. He’s already reaching out to them in a way that we haven’t seen before.”
Mr. Gates took office at a turning point. Mr. Bush fired Donald H. Rumsfeld after Republicans suffered large congressional losses in 2006 - a defeat many blamed on failures in Iraq. Mr. Bush persuaded Mr. Gates to leave the presidency of Texas A&M and he took office amid a troop surge and a new counterinsurgency gambit that produced dramatic improvements in Iraq.
Looking for a Republican for his Cabinet and persuaded by Gates admirers, Mr. Obama asked him to stay on. Mr. Gates reluctantly agreed, under the condition that he not be a caretaker secretary.
The defense secretary is now focusing on Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban has used safe havens in Pakistan to regroup and retake territory in their homeland. He guided development of a new strategy that mirrors Iraq - more U.S. troops and a plan to persuade the population at the village level to reject the Taliban.
‘Irregular’ vs. future warfare
When it comes to dealing in the Pentagon, however, Mr. Gates listens to counterarguments but does not encourage dissent, said the former senior official who used to meet with him weekly. Mr. Gates has fired two Joint Chiefs members, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman, over Iraq failures; and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the previous Air Force chief of staff, who was obliged to take responsibility for several serious nuclear safeguard failures.
The former senior official,as well as a current Pentagon civilian, told The Washington Times that Gen. Moseley had been the strongest dissenter among the Joint Chiefs on the issue of modernizing for the future, versus “irregular warfare” - counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Mr. Gates, who has publicly acknowledged policy differences with Gen. Moseley, has criticized the top brass for what he terms “next-war-itis” and rebuked the previous leadership in explaining why he is shifting money.
“Much of the problem, in my view, stemmed from the fact that for too long there was a belief or a hope that Iraq and Afghanistan were exotic distractions that would be wrapped up relatively soon - the regimes toppled, the insurgencies crushed, the troops brought home,” he said last month at the Army War College. “As a result of these failed assumptions, the capabilities most urgently needed by our war fighters, were for the most part fielded ad hoc and on the fly.”
The cuts Mr. Gates is seeking fall heavily on missile defense and Air Force fighters.
In a sharp break with his predecessor, Mr. Gates is scaling back systems intended to knock out long-range nuclear warheads in space. He downscaled the airborne laser to a research effort and, more significantly, froze ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California at 30, as opposed to a planned 44.
Missile defense advocates expressed chagrin.
“There was a determination six months ago that the total number needed to protect the United States homeland from a simultaneous attack from North Korea and Iran was 44 missiles,” said Riki Ellison, who heads the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, funded by private citizens and business. “I don’t see the threat being reduced.”
Problems with the F-35
More troubling to some conservatives is Mr.Gates’ willingness to begin a steady decline in defense spending starting in 2011. Mr. Bush’s core defense spending went up 40 percent over eight years, after inflation.
Mr. Gates terminated the ground-vehicle side of the Army’s all-encompassing Future Combat System, froze buys of the Air Force’s futuristic F-22 at 187, ordered the retirement of 250 fighter jets in one year alone and put the Navy on notice to reduce carrier battle groups from 11 to 10.
To the Air Force fighter community, Mr. Gates is sacrificing air superiority - the military operation of capturing the sky from the enemy - should there be a future war against China or Russia. The Air Force had wanted more than 300 F-22s but would have settled for 240.
“He has decimated the Air Force for the future,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who flew hundreds of combat missions in Vietnam. He calls Mr. Gates “the most dangerous secretary of defense we’ve ever had.”
In addition to ending the F-22 production line, Mr. Gates canceled a next-generation long-range bomber and the Air Force’s new combat search and rescue helicopter.
“He is focused on irregular warfare to a fault,” said Gen. McInerney. “Not one of the six Joint Chiefs knows anything about air superiority or has had any combat experience in it. Yet the number one military requirement of military operations is air supremacy. You cannot conduct ops if you don’t have it.”
Most of the retired tactical aircraft will be F-16s. To begin to fill the gap, the defense secretary is accelerating buys of the F-35, the next-generation all-purpose fighter. However, the single-engine F-35 is considerably slower and carries fewer missiles than the F-22.
Despite the criticism at home, Mr. Gates has defenders in the field.
“I absolutely love the slash and burn of the big programs that we don’t need today,” said a military intelligence officer who did time in Afghanistanbut asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. “We might need some of the stuff tomorrow, but hey, we’re in a shooting war and the troops have far too long gone without the stuff to make their grunt life better and more survivable.”
Other backers add that Mr. Gates should not be judged just on budget cuts, noting that he was a moderating voice inside the administration on Iraq and also pushed for a larger commitment in Afghanistan. Both positions strained the president’s relationship with his liberal base.
“These are important policies in the last three months that Bob Gates has played a big role in,” Mr. Whitman said.