Gates vs. the Pentagon Bureaucracy: Déjà Vu

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Left to Right: Karen Bleier AFP / Getty ; Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

On Monday Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave a speech at the National Defense University in Washington excoriating the military establishment he inherited on taking the job almost two years ago. Many saw the address as an attack on his predecessor in the job, Donald Rumsfeld. But while Gates did upbraid the Rumsfeldian fascination with high-tech weapons and the slimming down of fighting forces these would supposedly allow, the prime target of his address was something Rumsfeld himself had railed against as well, the Pentagon bureaucracy, in a speech to Pentagon bureaucrats on September 10, 2001, only hours before a hijacked airliner crashed into the building and killed 184 people. What's remarkable is how little has changed since 9/11.

Gates, of course, spoke to a military embroiled in two difficult wars, which gives his words greater urgency. Yet some of the problems he's denouncing are rooted in the same ones decried by his predecessor. Rumsfeld had spoken during peacetime, which meant he focused on inefficiencies in the way the Pentagon buys its weapons and uses uniformed personnel to perform duties — such as guarding gates at military bases and cooking for the troops — that he argued could better be done by civilians.

"In this building, despite the era of scarce resources taxed by mounting threats, money disappears into duplicative duties, bloated bureaucracy, not because of greed, but gridlock. Innovation is stifled not by ill intent but by institutional inertia," Rumsfeld warned in 2001. "Just as we must transform America's military capability to meet changing threats, we must transform the way the department works and what it works on." He spoke of launching a major push to wring inefficiencies from the way the Defense Department does business, although that effort was sidelined the next morning when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

In this week's speech, Gates blamed that same Pentagon inertia for hampering U.S. success in Afghanistan and Iraq. He cited the laggard efforts to develop better armor to protect soldiers, and drones to tell them where the enemy is hiding. "Why did we have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in?" Gates asked. "For every heroic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming at the Pentagon they had to overcome."

Gates stressed that for the foreseeable future, the U.S. is likely to be fighting an unsavory stew of insurgents and terrorists rather than modern militaries armed with columns of tanks, armadas of ships and fleets of planes. "As then-Marine Commandant Charles Krulak predicted 10 years ago today, instead of the beloved 'son of Desert Storm,' Western militaries are confronted with the unwanted 'stepchild of Chechnya,' " Gates said. Combat in that messier realm, he argued, requires lots of cheap weapons and not so many of the glamorous ones.

High atop Gates' hit list of such unneeded weapons are F-22 fighters beyond the 183 already deployed or in the pipeline. The Air Force insists it needs perhaps twice as many of the $350 million fighters for possible wars with China or Russia. Lockheed Martin, the F-22 Raptor's builder, announced Tuesday that the plane had passed a major milestone by accumulating more than 50,000 flight hours. "The war fighter has put the Raptor to the test," the company said. "F-22s have flown in multiple Red Flag events, Northern Edge exercises, deployed to Kadena Air Base Japan, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and flown in the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough Air Show." But wait — there's more: the F-22 recently dropped "a small-diameter bomb at supersonic speed for the first time." Yet don't let that reference to "war fighter" fool you: the F-22 has yet to fly a single real-world combat mission, even as the Army and Marines have been stretched tight by waging war for close to seven years.

Such gleaming trophies, Gates acknowledged, "are strongly supported in the services, in the Congress, and by the defense industries" — the so-called "iron triangle" that makes reshaping Pentagon spending so difficult. The F-22, for example, is assembled from parts made by 1,000 subcontractors spread across 44 states. That's why even as Gates spoke, Congress was sending the White House a defense budget for the fiscal year that begins October 1. Although Gates has repeatedly said the Air Force's planned buy of 183 is sufficient, Congress included $523 million in the 2009 budget to begin building 20 more.