What Is Robert Gates Really Fighting For?

A trusted aide to six Presidents, Robert Gates is the most powerful Defense Secretary in a generation. But what is the Republican at the head of Obama's war room fighting for?

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Lynsey Addario for TIME

Gates being briefed at Camp Eggers in Kabul during a tour of Afghanistan last December.

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One of the things his staffers love about him is his common sense, I-don't-get-it attitude toward the stupidity of bureaucracy. Now that he's past worrying about climbing within that bureaucracy, he has the confidence to break it. At the height of the Iraq surge in 2007, which Gates supported, more than 100 soldiers a month were dying. It's almost impossible as an outsider to understand why the Pentagon would not want to build the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, that would have saved many of those soldiers' lives. Instead of budgeting for MRAPs, the Pentagon was still spending money on outdated weapon systems. So Gates bypassed the normal procurement process, created a special task force, went to Congress and got the money to build them. "Those vehicles saved hundreds of lives and limbs," says a senior Pentagon official.

The same thing happened in Afghanistan. The absurdities of the NATO campaign, in which each country's forces operate according to their own particular caveats--many of which include no fighting--shocked Gates during his visit a year and a half ago. "He heard that we had a soldier who was shot and was in Spain's AOR [area of responsibility]. The Spanish troops had to call back to Madrid to seek permission to medevac him," a Pentagon aide told me. "The soldier lived. But Gates was furious." He also heard that while wounded soldiers in Iraq were guaranteed a medevac within the "golden hour," in Afghanistan they could wait as long as 1 hr. 41 min. Gates saw that there were Air Force helicopters sitting on the tarmac at the Bagram base, on call for search-and-rescue missions to recover downed airplanes--something that hadn't happened in years. Why couldn't they be used to evacuate soldiers? It was a classic case of interservice rivalry getting in the way of practical solutions to save lives. Gates insisted that they all ramp up their medevac capabilities. Today most wounded soldiers are evacuated within an hour, and the formerly grounded Air Force has begun flying so many missions that Army pilots have expressed envy.

The list of mindless bureaucratic obstacles that were hampering the war effort was dizzying. For example: military officers complained that there were not enough drones, Predators and unmanned reconnaissance in the air to help target insurgent cells. The holdup? Air Force pilots are taught to fly real planes, not drones. Each pilot costs about $1 million to train. And yet some staff sergeants in the Army had started operating the drones at a fraction of the price, with far fewer crashes. "If the Army is doing it safer and cheaper and able to produce more pilots faster, why aren't we doing it to that standard?" Gates asked. "This requires a cultural revolution in the Air Force," explained one of his staffers--which it got in 2008, after Gates fired the civilian and military leaders of the service for other reasons. Now the Air Force licenses junior officers to fly unmanned aircraft, and Gates has tripled the number of drones operating in the war zones.

From the Old School

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