When Defense Secretary Robert Gates took his post nearly five years ago, his top priority was salvaging the faltering U.S.-led war effort in Iraq. As he prepares to step down this summer, the Defense chief has a new mission: shaping the terms of the coming debate over how much the Pentagon’s budget should be cut to help close the nation’s yawning deficit.
Gates has regularly warned that the Pentagon was in for a prolonged period of belt-tightening, but the cutbacks now appear to be coming sooner—and to potentially be much larger—than he had envisioned. In January, Gates announced plans to cut $78 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next five years. Last week, by contrast, President Obama said he wanted Gates to help find $400 billion in additional defense-related cuts over the next 12 years, a much larger reduction than senior Pentagon officials had been expecting.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Gates said he hoped to “frame” the coming budget debate in terms of the concrete trade-offs the administration would have to make in terms of troop levels and military capabilities if it chose to make significant funding cuts. Gates said the department would be undertaking a broad review of its basic strategic thinking, including the decades-old assumption that the United States should maintain enough forces and armaments to be able to fight two large-scale wars at the same time. His biggest fear, Gates said, was that the White House or Congress would bypass that review by simply ordering an across-the-board reduction in the Pentagon’s budget allocation.
“The worst of all possible worlds, in my view, is to give the entire Department of Defense a haircut that basically says ‘everybody is going to cut X percent,’” Gates said Thursday. “That's the way we got the hollow military in the 1970s and in the 1990s. And so I want to frame this so that options and consequences and risks are taken into account as budget decisions are made.”
Gates is uniquely well-positioned to shape the coming debate. He will leave office in coming months as one of the most popular and well-respected Defense secretaries in U.S. history. The Bush administration holdover is credited with salvaging the Iraq mission, scrapping an array of costly and unproven weapons programs, and restoring a much-needed sense of accountability to the Pentagon by firing scores of generals and additional senior officers. He has enjoyed strong support from GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, allowing him to help rebuff Republican accusations that the administration’s earlier Pentagon budget cuts were weakening American national security.
But he’s unlikely to stick around long enough to see it through. Gates is widely expected to leave office by July, and senior Pentagon and White House officials believe that the front-runners to succeed him are CIA Director Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff; and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a onetime governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia who enjoys a close relationship with President Obama.
The next Defense chief, regardless of who gets the nod, will inherit a vastly different job than Gates has held. With the U.S. embroiled in two overseas wars, lawmakers freely funneled money to the Pentagon and rarely forced its top officials to choose between competing priorities. Gates and his generals got both manpower and high-tech weaponry: The Army and Marine Corps were given money to recruit tens of thousands of additional troops, while the Air Force and Navy received tens of billions of dollars’ worth of advanced warplanes, next-generation robotic drones, and futuristic ships.
With the budget pressures likely to only grow more pronounced in coming years, Panetta or Mabus will have to start making some painful choices. Senior Pentagon officials warned defense contractors this week that major acquisition programs are virtually certain to be eliminated or cut back, moves that would spark opposition inside and outside the Pentagon. Lawmakers from both parties routinely try to spare defense programs from the axe to save jobs in their own districts or states. An entire generation of senior military officers, meanwhile, has come of age in an era of plenty. They are likely to mount pitched battles to save their favorite programs.
“It’s going to be a dramatically different time at the Pentagon because we’re in a new economic reality,” retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who stepped down last fall as Obama’s national-security adviser, said in a recent interview. “It’s still a very dangerous world, but the Department of Defense is not going to be spared the impact of the economic downturn—and the realignment of our priorities—as we reduce the deficit and get our financial house in order.”
In his comments this week, Gates acknowledged the difficulties of the choices facing both Obama and the entire Pentagon as the budget vise closes tighter. He noted that the department has no choice but to purchase new aerial refueling tankers, given the age of its current fleet, and to replace an array of Navy vessels which were built during the Reagan era and are approaching the end of their lifespans.
“I want to frame this so that it’s not a math exercise but so people understand the strategic and national security consequences of the decisions that they’re making,” he said. “And it’s up to us to do that, I think, in stark terms.”