Was Bob Gates a Success?

Official Washington loves departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates; politicians and pundits alike hang on his every word, applauding his “candor” and praising his “courageous” spending cuts. But military budget expert Winslow T. Wheeler says Gates’s record doesn’t match his press clippings.

By Winslow T. Wheeler

June 16, 2011

Robert Gates has been called the best secretary of defense in recent memory. On the other hand, he has a reputation with some as a slick career bureaucrat with a knack for avoiding blame but pocketing credit. Both are true.

“Best in recent memory?” It would have been hard for Gates to have been a bigger tower of ego, bluster and incompetence than Donald Rumsfeld, more of a non-entity than William Cohen, or a more fervent technology huckster than William Perry.

Nonetheless, with a very small number of worthwhile decisions that he had the smarts to make stick, Gates has won himself the swooning accolades of the vast majority of the media, most (but not all) think tank Pooh-Bahs from the left, right and center, and just about every politician in the country.

Why would I be negative about a respected personality who did, indeed, exercise some very long overdue discipline on the recalcitrant military services?

They had, for example, busied themselves running around Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessors to keep alive sacred – but outrageously expensive and under-performing – hardware programs like the F-22 (lately priced at over $400 million per copy).

They also had tried to stiff much needed reforms to improve wounded veterans care at dysfunctional facilities like Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Gates fired the malefactors and stuffed the porkers in Congress when they tried to resuscitate the F-22. Those actions alone earn him the “best in recent memory” accolade.

The negativity comes – at least to me – when I realize the authority Gates achieved for himself with those actions and a few well-worded policy journal articles and speeches. Then, I compare that power to what he accomplished, or just tried to accomplish.

Having won for himself recently unprecedented power as secretary of defense, what did he use his power to do?

Here is my list of important things that Robert Gates didn’t fix and didn’t even try to fix.

The Audit Problem: The Defense Department does not know how it spends its money.

For example, as Gates has acknowledged, he does not know how many contractors work for DOD, what they do, and what they are paid. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Public estimates of the size of the overhead in DOD vary from 40 to 50 percent, if not more. No one knows, and no one even raised an eyebrow when a Lockheed executive said recently that overhead for the F-35 fighter-bomber program was 85 percent.

Gates runs a Pentagon that neither knows nor apparently cares. Gates’s solution is to pretend to be ready for a superficial-level audit in 2017. That would be 27 years after a deadline for that and more was imposed by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990.

All the talk now going around about getting the cost of weapons under control is complete drivel unless and until the Pentagon can solve this problem. You can’t control costs if you can’t measure them accurately and completely.

Our Decaying Forces: In addition to the $1.2 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, presidents Bush and Obama and Congress also added another trillion dollars to the “base” (non-war) Pentagon budget.

With that extra money, we now have an Army that has grown by just one brigade combat team (two percent); we have a Navy with ten percent fewer ships, and we have an Air Force with 50 percent fewer combat aircraft squadrons.

These are not smaller, newer forces; they are smaller, older forces. In category after category of major combat equipment, Congressional Budget Office analysis shows that the forces are – on average – older than they have ever been before.

Available data on combat-readiness training shows that we have serious problems there too; sadly, too much of our training has been “on the job” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Gates plan for this is to make it all worse. The budget increases Gates advocates will translate into even smaller, older, less ready forces.

DoD’s Broken Acquisition Apparatus: Gates and Congress bathed themselves in praise for the Weapon System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 to fix DOD’s broken acquisition system – measured by the Government Accountability Office to have had more cost growth and schedule delays than ever before.

With Gates’s Pentagon avidly cheering it on, Congress assiduously filled almost every provision of the bill with gaping loopholes to make it easy – and inevitable – to circumvent every reform. Exactly that has happened.

The unaffordable F-35 was resuscitated when it “breached” the cost control provisions of the Nunn-McCurdy Act.

The allegedly reformed act was supposed to obviate underperforming, ultra-high cost programs just like the F-35, which by the way is about to have another cost increase that DoD’s cost-estimating bureaucracy – the one reformed by the reform act – is busily sweeping under the rug.

The Gates solution? F-35-like “concurrency” – buying a weapon before you test it – is the way to go. Just read some of the latest news articles about Global Hawk, Littoral Combat Ship, Gorgon Stare and just about any Major Defense Acquisition Program.

Gates (and Congress) didn’t fix the acquisition problems; they merely pretended to.

Counterproductive Global Interventionism: Having told one audience a few months ago that anyone who wanted to deploy American ground forces to several continents “should have his head examined,” Gates more recently lectured NATO that it doesn’t follow America’s lead enough in interventions and it doesn’t spend enough.

Why on earth would they want to do either? They are many fine examples of the brilliant success of American interventionism and defense spending practices, aren’t there? It’s a wonder that some in NATO didn’t laugh in Gates’s face.

Mind Numbing Bromides: Conventional wisdom in Washington frequently gets itself wrapped around stupid bromides. One from the past is that national strategy should be decided separate from budget and the former must lead the latter.

That available resources are an essential ingredient to what one can and should do in the world has escaped from this formulation, but it is ardently embraced by those who want to maximize spending.

A new formulation of this comes to us from Robert Gates; it is that in an era of budget constraints, there must be no “across the board cuts,” that is top-down instructions to and across bureaucracies to cut spending by set amounts. It must, instead, come from the bottom. What hogwash.

First, everybody, including Gates’s DOD does top down, “across the board cuts.”

One recent example: The House Armed Services Committee and the House Appropriations Committee just recommended some uniform and arbitrary (“across the board”) cuts that they mask as “unobligated expenditures” and “revised economic assumptions.”

In the past, the data for these actions have come to the committees from the DOD Comptroller’s office; they should be seen not as arbitrary cuts from Congress, but from DOD and Congress.

Second, since when have bureaucracies, especially DOD ones, been forthcoming in producing cuts in their own budget?

You can expect the bureaucracy’s bottom-up cut ideas to come about as quickly as DOD has been permitted to take to get itself ready for an audit – an audit of such superficiality that only the bureaucracy could have suggested it as a target, 27 years late.

Who is Leon Panetta? The only thing I really know about him is that he is a smart politician.

I came to appreciate that during his June 9 confirmation hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee. Joining himself at the hip with virtually everything Gates has said and done, Panetta took advantage of Gates’s high reputation in Congress (and the country) to assure everyone that he and Gates will be a seamless transition.

How better to avoid any confirmation controversy than to promise no meaningful differences from the consecrated master?

I don’t know who Leon Panetta really is, but there is one thing I do hope: I hope Leon Panetta is not really Robert Gates.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC. He is also the editor of the new anthology The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.