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A single-minded focus on dual wars

Defense Secretary Gates has embarked on an ambitious effort to force the Pentagon to focus more energy on developing equipment to help troops battle insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Image: Robert Gates
Defense Secretary Robert Gates testifies on Capitol Hill in on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Susan Walsh / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On a rainy night in March, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the military's ritual for welcoming home its war dead.

In a small building next to the tarmac, an officer briefed the defense secretary on the four deceased troops arriving that evening. They had been driving along a rutted road near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, when their Humvee hit a powerful roadside bomb.

Gates flashed with anger, according to people with him that day. He had spent most of his tenure in the Pentagon pushing to replace Humvees in Afghanistan and Iraq with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, built to withstand such blasts. "Find out why they hadn't gotten their goddamn MRAPs yet," he snapped at his staff.

Clad in the black suit he had worn to work that morning in the Pentagon, Gates climbed into the cargo hold of the white 747 bearing the remains. From the ground, troops could see the defense secretary as he knelt, alone, by the flag-draped transfer cases. Five minutes passed.

Then Gates, a small man with white hair neatly combed across his head, appeared in the plane's door and summoned the chaplain and the honor guard to begin the 17-minute welcome-home ritual.

A few days later, he was asked at a Pentagon news conference if he would talk about his visit. He started to answer the question but stopped. "Actually, no," he said. "I will tell you it was very difficult."

Gates's experience at Dover offers a window into what is driving him as he seeks to remake Washington's biggest and most ponderous bureaucracy. For decades, the Pentagon's focus has been on building expensive, high-tech weapons programs for conventional wars. Gates has embarked on an ambitious effort to force the department to focus more of its energy on developing arms and equipment that can help troops on the ground as they battle insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

His push to refocus the department comes as the war in Afghanistan appears in stalemate and violence against U.S. troops and Afghan forces is on the rise. In neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have carved out a haven from which they can launch attacks on U.S. troops, the government's hold on power throughout the country has grown shakier.

Last week, Gates fired the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The new commanders will be responsible for fighting the war and implementing President Obama's new strategy. Gates sees his job as making sure they have the tools they need.

An emphasis on now
The deteriorating conditions in the two countries seem to have sharpened the secretary's sense of urgency. His 2010 defense budget, introduced this month, proposes to cut or curtail a spate of large-scale weapons programs.

"Listening to our troops and commanders, unvarnished and unscripted, has from the moment I took this job been the greatest single source of ideas on what the department needs to do," he told lawmakers Wednesday. When some lawmakers questioned whether he had done the rigorous analysis to justify his budget cuts, Gates responded in his flat Kansas twang that the Pentagon is "drowning in analysis." Most of the changes he'd made were "kind of no-brainers," he said. Gates declined to be interviewed for this article.

Gates's critics, including some active-duty generals and many of the senior officials he has fired, say his intense focus on Afghanistan and Iraq threatens to turn the vaunted U.S. military into an army of occupiers and nation-builders. "I am sure the North Koreans fear the MRAP and the Iranians are cringing in their boots about the threat from our stability forces," former Air Force secretary Michael W. Wynne, who was dismissed last year, wrote in an online column. "Our national interests are being reduced to becoming the armed custodians in two nations, Afghanistan and Iraq."

Last year, the four-star generals who run the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps formally "non-concurred" with the classified version of Gates's National Defense Strategy, which called for "taking additional, acceptable risk" in the area of conventional war so that the military could improve its ability to fight irregular wars. Gates met with all of the chiefs to listen to their objections. He then concluded that their concerns were "not compelling," said a senior Pentagon official involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The defense secretary has since described the strategy document as the foundation for the shift he's making in the Pentagon.

When he arrived
Gates, who is 65, didn't come to the Pentagon to make major changes. With only two years left in George W. Bush's presidency, his mandate was a narrow one: fix the war in Iraq. Arriving from the presidency of Texas A&M University, Gates brought no aides with him, choosing to retain even the confidential assistant and chief of staff to his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Even Gates's detractors concede that he is a ruthlessly effective manager of the Pentagon bureaucracy. He demands that all briefing slides from his staff and military commanders reach his office the day before the meeting in which they will be discussed. With the slides in hand, he plots how he wants to drive the discussion. If slides arrive after the deadline, the meeting will be canceled or postponed, Pentagon officials said.

In contrast with Rumsfeld, who allowed debates over weapons programs to drag on for months or years, Gates sets deadlines of weeks or even days. Meetings with top generals rarely run more than 45 minutes. "The natural propensity of a bureaucracy is not to decide," he has often said. "It will just chew the cud until there is no taste at all."

Gates also has moved quickly to demand accountability for mistakes from his senior leadership. Just three months into his tenure, he fired Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey after articles in The Washington Post exposed appalling living conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Harvey wasn't dismissed for the conditions at the hospital, defense officials said. Gates relieved him for failing to acknowledge the severity of the problems and fix them swiftly.

The Army secretary was visiting troops at Fort Benning, Ga., when he got an unexpected call from Gates's chief of staff ordering him to return immediately to the Pentagon. After Gates told him that he was fired, Harvey tried to argue his case, insisting that Gates and his staff had approved every move he had made in response to the failures at the hospital.

Gates, who colleagues describe as consistent and self-controlled, often grows quiet when he disagrees with someone. "It was like arguing with a stone," Harvey recalled. "The meeting lasted maybe 90 seconds."

A few days later, Gates asked through an intermediary if he could attend the goodbye ceremony that the Army was holding for Harvey. It was Gates's attempt to show respect for the office, said a defense official. Harvey sent word back that Gates wasn't welcome. "It was astounding to me that he'd even ask," Harvey recalled.

The secretary's vision
Since the early days of his tenure, Gates's vision for remaking the military has been shaped more by the daily frustrations of running the vast Pentagon bureaucracy than grand ideas about future war. Those frustrations came to a head in early 2008 when commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan were clamoring for more intelligence equipment, particularly Predator unmanned surveillance aircraft.

The field commanders estimated that they needed more than 40 Predator combat air patrols in the two war zones, defense officials said. At the time, the Air Force was able to maintain 12. When Gates asked the Air Force to find more surveillance planes, senior officials replied that they could provide four more patrols. Some Air Force officials also questioned whether the wartime commanders needed so many surveillance planes.

"The bureaucracy's first impulse was to deny that the demand really existed," said Brad Berkson, who served as director of program analysis and evaluation in the defense secretary's office.

In the weeks that followed, Gates pulled together a special task force, made up of his immediate staff and some military officers, to find more surveillance planes, both manned and unmanned. "We literally counted every tail in the fleet," said one Pentagon official involved in the effort. The results were stunning: Less than 25 percent of the military's arsenal of surveillance aircraft, which included Air Force Predators, Army Shadows and Navy P-3 Orion planes, was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the task force found.

The deficiencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were a result of a shortage of Air Force control stations, from which pilots fly the unmanned aircraft. The Air Force also hadn't trained enough pilots to operate all of the Predators in its rapidly expanding arsenal.

Gates's team went to extreme lengths to get more hours out of the available ground control stations and pilots. The task force arranged for experienced pilots to use stations normally set aside for training to fly combat missions during off hours. Because the Predators are controlled using satellite links, pilots can operate aircraft flying in Afghanistan and Iraq from bases in the United States.

The Air Force also lost a few hours of flying time each day because Predator pilots controlling planes from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., had to make an hour-long drive into town to buy lunch, visit the bank or pick up their children from day care. Gates set aside money to build a cafeteria, child-care facilities and other amenities at Creech. "We decided the pilots' time was extremely valuable," Berkson said. "We didn't even want them to have to stand in line at the bank."

Some Air Force officials complained bitterly that the defense secretary's staffers were micromanaging commanders at Creech. In one case, a member of Gates's staff called one of the base's commanders to ask him why his pilots were working shorter hours than Army pilots flying similar unmanned aircraft. "I was having to justify my organization down to the gnat's ass just about every week," an Air Force officer recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely about his superiors. "It became a distraction."

Results on predators
By early 2009, the task force's efforts had produced results: The number of U.S. military Predators in the air over Afghanistan and Iraq had increased almost three-fold, to 31 from 12. In a speech last year at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., Gates compared the effort to "pulling teeth."

In the months since he was asked by Obama to stay on as defense secretary as the Cabinet's lone holdover, Gates's top priority has been incorporating the lessons of the task force and similar initiatives into the 2010 defense budget. "His engagement on this budget has been orders of magnitude greater than any other secretary of defense that I can recall," said Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview. "There is a certainty about what he wants, and you can't get around it."

The current budget, for example, sets aside $2 billion so the Air Force will be able to keep as many as 50 unmanned surveillance planes in the air by 2011. Gates also carved out $500 million to increase the number of helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been in short supply since 2003. As with the Predators, the helicopter shortfall was caused by a lack of crews to maintain and fly the aircraft. The Pentagon has 6,000 helicopters in its fleet, but about 800 of them are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mullen said.

'We . . . must do better'
Last week, Gates flew to Afghanistan, where he asked for the resignation of the top American general in charge of the war. He had chosen Gen. David D. McKiernan for the post 11 months earlier but had become convinced that a new commander was needed to arrest the decline in the country. "We can and must do better," he later told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.

During his trip, Gates flew to a sprawling American base being built in southern Afghanistan to accommodate thousands of new U.S. troops now arriving in the country. He met four Marines who showed him their charred and dented MRAP. A few days earlier, as they patrolled the desert surrounding the base, a roadside bomb had detonated under the vehicle.

One of the Marines inside had broken his arm. The other three emerged with minor scratches and bruises.

Gates looked pleased. He shook their hands, struggled to make small talk and thanked them for their service.

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