In seeking to change the way the Department of Defense works, Secretary Robert Gates has had to make a lot of promises to a lot of people. To the President he promised to provide the Administration the credibility on national security affairs that it appeared to lack. In addition he promised to oversee a smooth withdrawal from Iraq and a surge in Afghanistan. To the combatant commanders he promised what they needed to win. He made a number of promises to the services. First and foremost, Secretary Gates promised there would be no “peace dividend,” no drastic reductions in defense spending at least during a war. He promised that if the services contributed to his plan to cut $100 billion in overhead expenses from the defense budget that they could keep the savings to help fund needed modernization programs. While raising questions about service force structures, particularly that of the Navy, he promised to support critical programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nuclear attack submarines, the Ground Combat Vehicle, the new aerial refueling tanker and credible strategic nuclear forces. Even as he sought to restructure the weapons acquisition process and reduce the role of private contractors in support activities, the Secretary promised the defense industry that they would be able to generate reasonable profits, export more and conduct business on a rational basis.
Secretary Gates has announced that he will leave office sometime after the beginning of the new year. There is no heir apparent, although the rumor mill has generated a number of names of possible replacements. It is possible that the White House may not want to consider a successor to Secretary Gates until it sees the results of the mid-term elections. Were the Democrats to lose the Senate it might be more difficult to get certain candidates confirmed.
Regardless of who is nominated, the critical question is will the next Secretary of Defense will be able to keep Gates’ promises? The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan may be beyond any Western leader’s control but the next defense secretary will have to decide how to deal with the impending July 2011 date for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the McChrystal affair demonstrated, Afghanistan has the potential to generate a serious civil-military split. Can the next SecDef provide the degree of civilian control of the military exercised by Robert Gates?
More important, will the next Secretary of Defense be able to keep Gates’ promises to the services and defense industry, even were he or she so inclined? It is unlikely that any replacement will have the political advantages Gates enjoyed. In particular, it is difficult to see how a new SecDef will have the same degree of influence with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. Gates had sufficient clout with President Obama to get agreement to prevent near-term cuts in defense spending. Also he clearly believes he has sufficient “cred” with the President to threaten his veto of the defense budget if Congress funded additional C-17s or the alternative engine for the F-35.
What will happen to Secretary Gates’ commitments to the services? Can a successor, new to the job, without the unique advantages that his/her predecessor possessed protect the military from drastic spending cuts, much less protect the current budget top line? What will happen to current proposals to reform export controls without the architect of the plan to support it? Who is that individual who will simultaneously enjoy the serious regard of the President, have credibility with Congress, be able to exercise tight controls over the military and drive the Pentagon bureaucracy?
Find Archived Articles: