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I fully expect all hell to break loose this afternoon when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announces significant changes to several dozen Pentagon programs that will shift military spending from massive Cold War type weapons systems to counter-insurgency programs that are geared toward fighting the ‘small wars’ that will dominate our conflicts in coming decades.   The plan Gates will unveil tomorrow will boost spending in less-expensive programs while slashing huge amounts of money from big, expensive (and increasingly obsolete) programs.

And that is why all hell is going to break loose.

Congressmen absolutely love their big, shiny, expensive weapons jobs programs that keep the funds coming in to their districts and their asses firmly affixed to their congressional seats.  

Defense contractors are going to be bringing tremendous pressure on congressmen, and those congresscritters are going to protest mightily.

One of the programs that is expected to be gutted – and with good reason – is the Army’s Future Combat Systems.  FCS is a high tech boondoggle that has more bugs than an infested tenement and a price tag that exceeds $150 billion dollars.  

No branch will be spared.  The Air Force and the Navy will have some toys taken away, too.  Also expected to be cut is a $20 billion communications satellite program, the ridiculous missile-defense shield program, and the elimination of one carrier group.  

“He is strategically reshaping the budget,” said Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, who declined to provide details. The secretary is “subjecting every program to harsh scrutiny, especially those which have been over budget and/or behind schedule. . . . The end result, we hope, is a budget that more accurately reflects the strategic priorities of the president.”

Gates has signaled for months that the Pentagon’s resources are misallocated, but his embrace of the budget increase proposed by President Obama represents an abrupt turnaround. Late in the Bush administration, he blessed a military-service-driven budget proposal for 2010 packed with $60 billion in spending beyond what the Pentagon had earlier recommended. Much of the added funds would have accelerated the production of existing ships, airplanes, Army vehicles and missile defenses.

The proposal became known among some analysts as Gordon England’s “fairy dust,” after the deputy defense secretary who helped put it together. The name suggested the magical touch that would be needed to win a proposed 14 percent budget increase amid a global recession.

President Obama agreed instead to a 4% increase in Pentagon spending – which meant Secretary Gates would have to realign the spending priorities for the DoD.  The realignment has been so all-consuming that Gates skipped traveling to Europe to participate in the celebration surrounding the 60th anniversary of the founding of NATO.  

Several experts said the Pentagon budget plan last year was an effort to force the hand of a new administration and stands as a textbook example of military service pressures that have driven the growth in recent years of the defense budget, which has more than doubled since 2001. The 2009 total of $513 billion — not including special Iraq and Afghanistan war costs — exceeds the combined military budgets of the next 25 highest-spending nations.

The timing and size of the much higher proposal that Gates initially presented to the transition team “are provocative,” said David J. Berteau, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

A current Pentagon official who is disenchanted with past allocations of resources said, “It shines a light on the internals of the department: a culture that lives to grow its resources and make that the whole measure of merit.”

Of course, anyone speaking so frankly and honestly about the Pentagon budget spoke on condition of anonymity.  

To fully appreciate the significance of the looming battle, we have to look back to the spring of 2008 when the effort to win political support for a much higher level of spending started when Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, started arguing forcefully that military spending ought to be (a staggering) 4% of GDP.  This assertion stemmed from Mullen’s core conviction that U.S. spending prior to 1994 was about right, and that President Clinton was wrong to move away from that and spend slightly less.   Mullen sees the 4 percent target as “not an absolute number, but a good minimum starting point,” says Navy Capt. John Kirby, Mullen’s spokesperson.  

To that end, a group headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, approved details of the budget plan favored by Mullen and got busy supporting it.  Almost half of the budget was in support of what the Pentagon calls a persistent overseas presence, which entails at least ten combat brigades, a proposition that costs a hell of a lot of money.   “Our forces are likely to be deployed around the world for the foreseeable future,” said a Pentagon official who supported this approach.

The group led by England and Cartwright not only advocated a budget of $584 billion for the next year, they wanted hundreds of billions in additional spending over the next five years, and that is where the “fairy dust” notion gained traction.  Evan as they advocated it, proponents knew that the odds of getting what they wanted were miniscule.    

Gates never led the effort, or even had involvement that was more than peripheral, but he nonetheless insisted that the results be ready by Election Day – a date that was so early it raised eyebrows.  

After the election, he explicitly obtained authorization from the Bush White House to brief the incoming administration’s transition team.   Morrell said Gates was not attempting “to squeeze or pressure the new administration”; rather, the information was presented as “a conversational piece.”

The Obama team didn’t get rolled, no matter that those attempting to do the rolling had a veritable constellation of stars among them.  They flatly rejected the size of the proposed increase and the recommendation to set aside billions now for permanently garrisoning so many combat brigades overseas.  Gordon Adams, who served the incoming administration as an expert on national security was blunt when asked how he interpreted the message from the Pentagon:  “I saw this very much as an effort to jam the system,” he said. “It didn’t matter who ended up in the White House. If they decided to go below that number, it would be like they were cutting defense.”

Two months after he took office, President Obama addressed the Pentagon budget, saying “We’ve already identified potentially $40 billion in savings just by some of the procurement reforms. . . . And we are going to continue to find savings in a way that allows us to put the resources where they’re needed, but to make sure that we’re not simply fattening defense contractors.”

My opinion of Bob Gates has evolved since he became Secretary of Defense, as witnessed in the following excerpts from previous posts:

I have long said of Gates that I don’t much care for the man, but I sure as hell respect the talent.  Two years ago I said this about him:  

Now I am no fan of Bob Gates. I absolutely detest him. Not because he is a Republican (he has never been a registered Republican, he has always been an Independent) but because I know his past work. He is an ideologue of the first order and the original facts fixer. But I’m not stupid. I know skill when I see it. Where Rumsfeld was
a bureaucratic knife-fighter, Gates is the guy who would poison the coffee pot, pour himself a cup of tea and go to his office and quietly work through the morning and then step over the bodies on the way to lunch.

I don’t like him, but I don’t underestimate him.

Two months later I wrote this after LtC Paul Yingling called out the brass:

Make no mistake – this is happening for one reason and one reason only…the SecDef has bestowed his blessing on senior officers to speak out. (But why? Gates doesn’t have his morning coffee without considering four agendas that no one else knows about.)

I am watching Gates operate right now, and wondering, frankly, just what the fuck he is up to.

He is a rogue Secretary – the one man that Karl Rove has no dirt on – in fact, the inverse of that is probably true. He is the one man in the administration that the Mayberry Machiavellis can not control, and that wildcard makes watching the interactions between the White House and His Father’s Man, sent to save him, interesting. Especially if you are familiar with Gates earlier work, as I am. I detest the man, don’t trust him any farther than I can throw a bull by the tail; but damn, I respect the talent.

By December 2007, three months after Blackwater murdered 17 Iraqi civilians in a busy traffic circle,I was glad  he was in his post.

Let’s make sure to give credit where credit is due: Bob Gates started moving pieces around the board immediately after the unprovoked attack, attempting to get the “contractors” under control. I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again about Gates: I don’t like the man, but I respect the talent. Sometimes, I can almost admire the old prick. Almost…

In fact, since he took the job in November 2006, my respect for his talent has become admiration for his ability.  He has absolutely proven to be the best man for the job and frankly, I am quite pleased that President Obama offered him the job and relieved that he agreed to stay on.  If I ever find myself face-to-face with him, I will tell him so.  

Since his reappointment, Gates — who has demonstrated an uncanny ability to work seamlessly with different administrations — has come out in favor of Pentagon belt-tightening due to economic conditions that have deteriorated.  “Everybody must recognize, and frankly all the service chiefs do, the economic climate we find ourselves in,” Morrell said in February. “These guys don’t live, you know, in a cave somewhere or in a vacuum.”

That’s the Pentagon.  They are, of necessity, at least a little bit,  practical and pragmatic.

Congress and defense contractors, on the other hand, are not.  And when they get a look at the numbers tomorrow, and the new reality sets in, there is going to be much gnashing of teeth and rending of cloth, and howls of agony will surely fill the air.

And I can’t wait.  I have been waiting a long, long time for this.  There are going to be a lot of congresscritters swallowing their tongues and changing their undies when they realize that they might have to actually run on the issues and their voting records in future elections, instead of defense contracts that pour hundreds of millions into their district every year.  

Especially the republicans who have opposed all efforts to stimulate the economy.  When their constituents realize that not only has the gravy train left the station, but their republican representatives in congress didn’t even want them to have a bus ticket, constituencies are likely to say “so what the hell good are you, anyway?” and vote for “anybody but this asshole” the very next chance they get.