Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is rapidly acquiring the reputation as the most forceful Pentagon leader since Robert McNamara occupied an E-ring office more than forty years ago. Almost single-handedly he has recast the nation’s defense strategy and forced dramatic changes on all the armed services.
It takes a powerful will to reshape any large organization, much less one as complex and set in its ways as the Department of Defense. However, force of will is not the only characteristic needed in a leader. It is important also for leaders to be wise. Wisdom requires knowledge. Yet, looking at his recent decisions it is difficult not to conclude that the Secretary’s deliberations have not always benefited from adequate or correct information. On too many issues Secretary Gates’ actions appear ill-informed.
Take as an example the Secretary’s decision announced on April 6th to recast the Pentagon’s missile defense strategy, shifting the emphasis towards rogue states and theater missile threats and halting the deployment of midcourse interceptors designed to deal with long-range missile threats. At the same time, the Secretary promised to “. . . continue to robustly fund continued research and development (R&D) to improve the capability we already have to defend against long-range rogue missile threats.” Yet, Secretary Gates essentially terminated the only existing R&D programs to address the long-range threat: the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI).
On the subject of KEI, the Secretary’s decision was apparently based on ignorance of the facts. Yesterday, in testimony before Congress he stated that it was a program that began as a 5-year program that was now in its 14th year. It had never had a flight test and was “a program that was never going anywhere.” He also said it had no platform, could not be put on Aegis ships, and would have to be placed very close to the launch.
Secretary Gates is simply wrong with respect to every one of these statements. The program was started in fiscal year 2004; it is therefore only five years old. Rather than being a program “going nowhere,” KEI has had seven successful static motor tests and was scheduled for a booster flight in Fall 2009. While KEI was meant to first be a ground-based, mobile system, it could also be deployed on ships. The Missile Defense Agency conducted an analysis of alternatives involving five existing surface ships and one submarine – including the DDG-51 Aegis destroyer. The findings were “no showstoppers for any platform studied.” Finally, KEI’s high acceleration and ability to receive in-flight guidance updates would allow stand-off distances that are greater than the shorter range systems now available.
Secretary Gates is 0 for 6 in his characterization of KEI. It should give one pause when it comes to many other controversial decisions he has made. In light of these facts, the Secretary should reconsider his decision. The Department of Defense should leverage the $1.2 billion investment on KEI to date and complete the fully funded flight test plan.
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