It is unusual for an incoming Cabinet officer to spell out a precise agenda or to define the standards by which his performance should be judged before the president has even been sworn in. But that's exactly what now-and-future Defense Secretary Robert Gates has just done with an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs.
Gates probably didn't set out to do that when he wrote the article, which was based on a speech he delivered at the National Defense University in September, before the election had taken place.
Yet the article, titled "A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age," urges his successor at the Pentagon to take particular actions. Now that he's turned out to be his successor, we can watch how closely he follows his advice.
His first test will come in early February, when he submits the Defense Department's budget for fiscal year 2010. Much of his article deals with ways to restructure that budget. Had Obama picked someone else as defense secretary, we'd have to wait another year for signs of change, but Gates has been at the helm for two years now: He knows what he wants to do, knows how to get there (he's done a bit of it already), and appreciates the obstacles that remain. If he's inclined to plunge in, he'll do it from the get-go, while the Obama honeymoon is still on and the mood for change is strong.
The article's main point is that, given limited resources, the military services need to shift their priorities away from "baroque" high-tech weapons designed for threats of the distant future (or left over from Cold War premises) and toward low-cost weapons that are effective for the wars we're fighting now and will likely fight in the foreseeable future.
Gates allows that there has to be a balance between these two goals, but he notes that there is currently no constituency in the Pentagon or elsewhere for the latter types of weapons. He recalls that it was necessary to go outside the bureaucratic process to build and quickly deploy the MRAP armored troop-carrying vehicle—which provided much greater protection against roadside bombs in Iraq—or to make more efficient use of camera-carrying drones, like the Predator, for locating insurgents. (He doesn't note that he was the one who rammed these programs through the resistant Army and Air Force bureaucracies.)
More broadly, he writes that there are limits to U.S. military power and that the Pentagon should devote more resources and attention—and promote more of its officers—to train, advise, and equip the security forces of allies rather than doing the bulk of the fighting ourselves.
In short, Gates calls for a dramatic change in the Pentagon's "rewards structure"—"the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted … and how personnel are trained."