Robert Gates: On his way out, the defense secretary gives the military some refreshingly frank advice.

Military analysis.
March 4 2011 6:14 PM

Not Mincing Words

On his way out the door, Robert Gates gives the military some refreshingly frank advice.

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Gates told the Air Force cadets today that getting their top generals to go along with the drones in particular was like "pulling teeth." (He didn't tell them, though most of them must have known, that one way he finally got his way was to fire the Air Force chief of staff and replace him with an officer in more accord with Gates' views—namely, Gen. Norton Schwartz, who rose through the ranks not as a bomber or fighter pilot, like every Air Force chief before him, but as a Special Forces pilot and head of the Transportation Command.)

In his four years as defense secretary, split 50-50 between Presidents Bush and Obama, Gates has managed not only to get these new kinds of officers promoted and these kinds of weapons systems funded and deployed—he's also begun to see a broader acceptance of a new view of warfare and what kind of personnel, equipment, and training it requires.

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But the reforms are far from complete, and, as Gates put it in his West Point speech, "the tendency of any big bureaucracy is to revert to business as usual at the first opportunity." For the military, "that opportunity is, if not peacetime, then the unwinding of sustained combat"—which is already underway in Iraq and will be in the next few years in Afghanistan. If Gates really does leave this year, as he has said he'd like to do, then the first steps of this bureaucratic relapse could coincide with his last steps out the door.

Some in the defense world are incredulous that Gates might leave with so much of his legacy as yet unsettled. But part of this incompletion is of Gates' own making. For better or for worse (and probably for a bit of both), Gates has never wanted the total overhaul that his rhetoric has at times suggested. As he emphasized in both of his recent speeches, he has never called for the elimination of heavy armor or fighter planes or aircraft carriers. To the contrary, his budgets have added, and continue to add, billions of dollars for these sorts of weapons. He has slashed or killed some of the services' most cherished programs (the Air Force's F-22 fighter plane, the Army's Future Combat Systems, the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer), but he has boosted alternative programs that perform the same mission. He has pursued efficiencies, sometimes in rapier fashion, and he has forced the services to take on new missions. But he has rarely ordered them to drop the missions that they've long cherished.

He has always stressed—and did again in his two speeches to the cadets—that he is aiming for "the right balance" between what's needed for "conventional" combat (which, though unlikely, may still happen decades from now) and what's needed for the sorts of "irregular" wars that we're fighting now and that we're more likely to face in the near future.

But he hasn't spelled out what the right balance is or how to go about calculating it. Perhaps it's because he hasn't figured it out himself (who has?). Perhaps, as a product of the Cold War himself, he can't break away completely from that era's assumptions. Perhaps the defense bureaucracy, against which he's inveighed so often these past four years, is just too entrenched to challenge too much.

During an interview that I conducted last August for Foreign Policy, Gates noted at one point that, while he was cutting lots of Navy programs, he wasn't cutting out any aircraft carriers. When I asked why not, he replied, "I may be bold, but I'm not crazy."

In one sense, then, it's a shame that Gates isn't sticking around for another couple of years, until at least the end of Obama's first term, so that he can continue grinding his reforms into the gears of the bureaucracy. He may be the only person with the experience and credibility to do this with the full backing of the president and at least the tolerance of Congress. It may be that a still-bolder defense secretary is needed to carry what Gates has done to the next stage. The problem is that, at this point, it's just not clear who this figure might be.

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