Gates Takes Aim at the Military's Spending Wish Lists

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates (R) listens to Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Michael Mullen (L) testify during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill May 20, 2009

When it comes to getting their way on military spending, the four uniformed services have long acted like the crafty kid who successfully appeals to Mom after Dad has already rejected a request to boost his allowance. For more than a decade, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have gone around the Defense Secretary — and the President — by appealing directly to lawmakers for more money for their favorite weapons. Not surprisingly the lawmakers — in whose districts many of those arms are built — have been only too happy to oblige. Last year, the services sought $31 billion more than the $515 billion budget the White House requested, and got a lot of it.

This year, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is determined to crack down on what are known inside the Pentagon as "unfunded priority lists" and on Capitol Hill — to make them more palatable to skeptical lawmakers — as unfunded "requirements" or "mandates." Taxpayers who follow such arcane budget shenanigans call them "wish lists," and for good reason — they're basically lists of goodies that the Pentagon's civilian leaders felt weren't needed. Not only are they a waste of tens of billions of dollars, but funding such weapons outside normal channels leads to an unbalanced military force, jeopardizing the never-ending quest for the military services to fight wars jointly instead of engaging in internal budgetary guerrilla warfare with one another. And in going after them so directly, Gates is continuing his campaign to bring fundamental change to the Pentagon that will last beyond his tenure.

Of course, beating the services into shape may be easy compared to Congress. Gates is now engaged in a duel with lawmakers over the fate of the $350-million F-22 fighter. He insists the 187 already bought are sufficient, while lawmakers — eager to keep voters back home in 44 states churning out the warplanes — want to continue production. "If we can't get this right, what on earth can we get right?" Gates asked Thursday in Chicago. "It is time to draw the line on doing defense business as usual."

But choking off the services' wish lists is a good start. John Hamre, the Pentagon's No. 2 civilian during the Clinton Administration, says the lists have let the services "beg Congress" for weapons the Pentagon's civilian leaders wouldn't buy. "This broadly corrosive climate of indiscipline was created inside the department, enabled, and in many instances encouraged, by the Congress." Gates' crackdown, Hamre says, shows "real leadership" and is "hugely important" to restoring integrity to how the nation arms itself.

The Air Force is Gates's primary target. Last year, its list totaled more than those of the three other services combined. Topping out at $19 billion — beyond its White House-approved $144 billion budget request — it included dozens of extra airplanes, including seven Gulfstream V luxury passenger jets, generally flown by the likes of pop singer Elton John and Apple titan Steve Jobs, to ferry generals and other VIPs around the globe. "It's not a wish list," General Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, insisted after it became public. "It's an unfunded requirements list."

This spring, after Gates made clear to the uninformed military his view of the wish lists, the four military services meekly asked Congress for less than $3.5 billion in such "unfunded priorities," a nearly 90% cut from last year's request. "All the services are looking very, very hard, given economic situation in the country, to see if we can't do our best to make those lists as small as possible," General Peter Chiarelli, the Army's No. 2 officer, testified.

To critics, statements like that left the not unreasonable conclusion that prior wish lists had been padded beyond what was required simply because the economy was fat and happy. And indeed, the success Gates has so far had in curbing the services' excess has revealed two rarely spoken truths: just how malleable gold-braided generals and admirals are to strong civilian control, and just how flimsy supposed ironclad national-security requirements actually are.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were predictably upset when they learned that Gates had ordered the military brass to brief him on their requests before they sent them to Capitol Hill. By curbing the services' appetite, Gates has taken away from lawmakers their potent refrain — when stuffing extra billions into the defense budget — that they're only giving the uniformed military what its leaders say they need.

With Gates and the service chiefs largely in sync on what needs to be spent, lawmakers have lost that critical lever to fatten the Pentagon's purse. "I think they went too far," Rep. John Murtha says of the lists. The Pennsylvania Democrat chairs the Defense Appropriations Committee and therefore knows a thing or two about helping hometown companies (perhaps too helpful: the FBI recently raided a lobbying firm run by a former Murtha associate, though Murtha has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the FBI probe). "We took care of too many things," Murtha tells TIME, "without asking enough questions."

Not everyone agrees. Rep. Randy Forbes, Republican from Virginia, recently asked General William Fraser III, the Air Force's No. 2 officer, why his service's 2010 requirements list was only 10% the size of last year's. Generals hate answering questions like that because it puts them in the uncomfortable position of publicly criticizing their colleagues. So Fraser, a bomber pilot by training, engaged in evasive maneuvers. First, he insisted the current list is based on what the Air Force needs and wasn't trimmed by Gates. "I'm sure you're telling the absolute truth," Forbes responded, but kept pressing. "We needed to be fiscally responsible," Fraser said. "I would assume that you had that same concern last year," Forbes countered. Fraser then noted that he's new to the job and had nothing to do with last year's list.

And that's the real bottom line: shortly after Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne submitted their huge unfunded-request list last year, Gates fired both of them. He said their sloppy oversight of nuclear components was responsible for their cashiering, but it's also clear the Secretary of Defense believes the smart deployment of defense dollars is just as critical as the smart deployment of troops.