Hailing Gates for Pentagon ‘Savings’

Since becoming Defense Secretary in December 2006, Robert Gates has wallowed in flattering press clippings, most recently hailed as the heroic Pentagon budget cutter eliminating wasteful weapons systems. However, the reality is quite different as Gates ends his tenure at the Pentagon with more and more costly weapons systems than before his much-touted “savings,” Winslow T. Wheeler notes.

By Winslow T. Wheeler

June 4, 2011

For months I have been reading in the press about Defense Secretary Robert Gates “cancelling more than 30 [defense hardware] programs.”

A May 24 Bloomberg News article by Viole Gienger (“Gates Says Military Cuts May Protect F-35, Submarines”) came up quick on a Google search. Other articles credit Gates with “saving more than $300 billion” with these – presumably tough – decisions.

In case you are wondering where this image of Robert Gates as a tough taskmaster reining in out-of-control DOD procurement is coming from, you need look no further than Robert Gates. 

At a May 24 farewell speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Gates repeated his own claim, made frequently earlier, that “All told, over the past two years, more than 30 programs were cancelled, capped, or ended that, if pursued to completion, would have cost more than $300 billion.” 

A bit later, he hammered home the point in case any of the press corps present missed the legacy that Gates seeks for himself: 

“When it comes to our military modernization accounts, the proverbial ‘low hanging fruit’ – those weapons and other programs considered most questionable – have not only been plucked, they have been stomped on and crushed.”

However, over those two years, Robert Gates did not reduce the number of hardware programs in the Department of Defense; he increased them. 

A term he has repeatedly expressed distaste for (“math”) proves him wrong. DOD keeps periodic records on these sorts of things: DOD’s Selected Acquisition Reports (SARs) track the number of major hardware programs and their acquisition costs.  (Find them at http://www.acq.osd.mil/ara/am/sar/.) 

The records show the following: 

–In September 2008, just before Barack Obama was elected and chose to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, there were 91 Major Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAPs). They were projected to cost $1,648 billion. 

–In April 2009, Gates announced the termination of various defense programs. The SAR that next came out, in December 2009, showed the number of MDAPs had indeed declined: to 87 programs, costing a little less, $1,616 billion (a drop of $32 billion). 

–Nine months later, after Gates took some more whacks at the defense budget – if that’s what you want to call them – the SAR in September 2010 showed the number of MDAPs had actually risen to 94 with a cost of $1,679 billion, an increase from September 2008, before Gates began his “savings.” In that two-year span, the total projected cost of MDAPs rose $31 billion. 

–The most recent SAR, for December 2010, shows another increase, both in programs (to 95) and money (to $1,720 billion). 

So, despite Secretary Gates’s “termination” of more than 30 programs “saving” us $300 billion since September 2008, we now have a total of four more programs costing an additional $72 billion. 

I have two questions:  

1)     Just what legacy should we be giving Mr. Gates? 

2) What type of “math” will Leon Panetta use when he is made Secretary of Defense later this year? 

Winslow T. Wheeler is Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.