Gates' Battle Plan for the Defense Budget

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Carolyn Kaster / AP

Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to U.S. Army War College students and faculty on Thursday, April 16, 2009, in Carlisle, Pa.

For a fellow who spent only two years as a young officer in the Air Force, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is looking equal parts Clausewitz and Sun Tzu — two of history's greatest military tacticians — as he unfolds his battle plan to remake the U.S. military. Last week he unveiled a $534 billion budget proposal for 2010 that calls for killing some of the military's most cherished weapons in favor of less high-tech gear better suited for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the most likely future conflicts. "You don't need," he said, "a $5 billion ship to go after pirates." (Read "Gates Takes Aim at Military Pork.")

In military parlance, he's "shaping the battlefield" for the fights ahead with Congress, which gets the final word on military spending and doesn't take kindly to economic engines in its home districts and states being summarily axed. Key programs on his chopping block include the Air Force's $350 million–a–copy F-22 Fighter, the Army's $160 billion Future Combat Systems — a network of ground and air vehicles — and the Navy's DDG 1000 Destroyer. To prevail, Gates is employing what those in uniform call TTPs — tactics, techniques and procedures:

Secrecy: Gates made more than 100 top Pentagon officials sign oaths promising not to reveal any of the more than 50 decisions they had been debating behind closed doors for the past three months. "There were no leaks," Gates said delightedly after detailing his plans. (See pictures of the U.S. Army Reserve.")

Timing: The Defense Secretary dropped his bombshells at the start of a two-week congressional recess. The lack of lawmakers in Washington muted the outrage that would have exploded had all 535 of them been hanging around the Capitol surrounded by cameras and reporters. Not that that has entirely stopped all the rhetoric, including many critics' bogus claim that Gates is shrinking the overall Defense budget. By canceling the Air Force's prized F-22 fighter, Gates "is willing to sacrifice the lives of American military men and women for the sake of domestic programs favored by President Obama," said Senator Saxby Chambliss, a GOP member of the Armed Services Committee from Georgia, where the plane is built.

Shifting and Packaging: Gates deftly matched many of his proposed cuts with what's known inside the Pentagon as "plus-ups" — more money for different, but similar, programs. Changes that might seem dubious in isolation make more sense when viewed as part of what Gates calls his "holistic assessment." The argument that the Air Force needs more F-22 fighters loses some of its punch once you learn that Gates wants to boost production of the $100 million–a–copy F-35 fighter.

Strike Early: Traditionally, the Pentagon budget is revealed by the White House along with spending plans for the rest of the government. Gates got permission from Obama to divulge his key decisions early, before sending them across the Potomac River. That means he hasn't had to play defense against the leaks that inevitably occur when the Pentagon sends its budget to the White House's Office of Management and Budget. As soon as that happens, jilted contractors run to their favorite lawmakers, seeking to save their tentatively-axed program before the budget is officially released.

Enlist Allies: Last year's Air Force leaders wanted more F-22s. Gates canned both of them, blaming them for the Air Force's sloppy handling of nuclear weapons, although their vocal support of the F-22 program angered Gates' inner circle. The new Air Force secretary and chief of staff agree with Gates that 187 F-22s are sufficient and took the unusual step of penning an Op-Ed in the Washington Post to say so. Meanwhile, Michael Wynne, the ousted secretary, was left to grumble in the blogosphere that Gates' blueprint is a "searing indictment of America's capability to design and build modern weapons" that will ultimately weaken the nation.

Go Behind Enemy Lines: Civilians and those in uniform have traditionally been at odds when it comes to procurement. So Gates is spending this week visiting the services' war colleges, trying to convince the future brass that his plan is the right one for the country and the military. He let them know that, so far, his strategy seems to be working. "I've been somewhat surprised, frankly, by the lack of a stronger reaction to the proposals that I've made," he told Air Force students Wednesday. "But I anticipate that the next few weeks will be fairly exciting on the acquisition front."

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