Washington Watch

Jan. 1, 2007

The Gates Dossier

When Robert M. Gates was nominated to become the next Pentagon chief, Washington was swept with speculation about how the move would affect the Air Force. Opinions varied, but the strongest current was optimism about the Air Force’s new situation.

Many officers and analysts suggested that the Air Force would receive more attention from Gates than it had gotten from Donald H. Runsfeld, if only because Gates had a reputation for being a good listener—not Rumsfeld’s long suit. Moreover, Gates, as a longtime intelligence professional and onetime Air Force officer, spoke the service’s language.

Gates got the nod from President Bush on Nov. 8, the same day that Rumsfeld announced his resignation under fire. A former CIA director, Gates faced the Senate Armed Services Committee on Dec. 5 and received quick affirmation and nearly unanimous approval from the full Senate the next day. Gates was viewed as a thoughtful and pragmatic bureaucrat, not overly impressed by his own significance. In writings and public comments, he frequently offered the observation that leaders and their pet projects come and go, but the institutions endure.

Nevertheless, as head of the CIA and as president of Texas A&M University, Gates generated cultural reforms that actually stuck, and although there was some dissent, few now complain that his changes were wrong. Rumsfeld attempted the same kind of transformation during his six years at the Pentagon. Whereas Rumsfeld handed down changes by executive fiat, stepping on toes and deliberately breaking rice bowls along the way, Gates has demonstrated that he wants the buy-in of the rank and file. He has usually gotten it done by letting those affected by his reforms participate in their development and execution.

Such an approach would be a refreshing change for those whose expertise has been ignored or scorned by Rumsfeld, who disdained anything that smacked of tradition or conservative planning. One finds many of these kinds of officials in the services, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill.

According to senior USAF officials, Rumsfeld never took a single briefing on the F-22 program, which was at various times held out as the Defense Department’s No. 1 acquisition priority. Nor did he take much interest in the service’s tanker replacement program, until an abortive attempt at leasing the aircraft became a political problem in Congress.

Rumsfeld also sought to garner a major portion of the national intelligence mission and created a new undersecretary post to handle intelligence. He and his intelligence deputy, Stephen A. Cambone, held the Air Force at arm’s length and treated it as, at best, an errant child and, at worst, an adversary.

The only person in the CIA ever to rise through the ranks from entry-level analyst to director, Gates objected to the restructuring of the intelligence community and turned down the job of director of national intelligence later accepted by John D. Negroponte.

It appeared that Gates and the Air Force would have common cause in the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance field. He long held that good, vetted intelligence was the bedrock of policy, while the Air Force has in recent years elevated ISR to practically its dominant consideration in all operations. All new programs must pass muster for connectivity to other systems and organizations, which is key to rapid dissemination and action.

Gates also looked to be an ally to the Air Force in the acquisition of programs for major theater war. Under Rumsfeld, such programs were consistently raided to pay for more special operations forces or the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The logic voiced by many of Rumsfeld’s top lieutenants was that the days of major theater war may have passed and that the urban combat and irregular threats had become dominant. Gates, on the other hand, was a hardline anti-Communist and was not likely to discount the increasing threat from China.

Even as the Cold War thawed in the 1980s, Gates tended to view the world in worst-case scenarios. He pushed for a national posture that would be able to deal with a militant, Stalinist Soviet Union if Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms had floundered. In fact, he drew criticism at the time for favoring intelligence that discounted the effect of glasnost and focused on Soviet military capabilities.

Gates has a charter to change course in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is well-prepared for that task, having served on the Baker Commission/Iraq Study Group, but many of the duties of setting and achieving force goals and sorting out doctrine were to be borne by Gates’ inherited deputy, Gordon England, who executed Rumsfeld’s vision without demur.

However, Gates the pragmatist faced the reality that any large-scale withdrawal of ground forces in Iraq or Afghanistan would have to be balanced by an increase in American airpower to protect those countries from threats within and without.

Meet the New Bosses

Although the November election put control of the House and Senate into Democratic hands, there probably won’t be any tectonic shifts in the way the major defense committees treat the Air Force.

Taking over from John W. Warner (R-Va.) as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who in recent years has focused his attention mainly on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the multiple supplemental bills required to pay for it.

Levin, 72, has styled himself a Pentagon watchdog who would like to spend defense dollars on commercial products wherever possible, rather than on purpose-designed equipment at greater cost. He has consistently criticized the Air Force for programs that are over budget and behind schedule, and he joined with Warner and new ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) in an attempt to block approval for a multiyear buy of the F-22. They were not successful.

Upon being named the new SASC chairman, Levin said he expected to launch a “very structured, very thorough review” of defense procurement. He also commended McCain for the Arizona Senator’s probing of major programs such as the Air Force’s aerial tanker program and the Army’s Future Combat System. Levin said he hoped McCain would continue the watchdog tactics, should he be able to do so while running for President.

“I hope he has time, given his other goals, to really keep doing what he has been doing,” Levin said.

Still, Levin has not campaigned to abolish any major USAF programs and has generally joined a bipartisan consensus on the committee to demand stricter oversight on problem programs. However, he has voiced concerns that the high operating tempo of military operations is stressing the armed forces to their breaking point.

Levin was also instrumental in passing legislation creating the modern method to get rid of unneeded defense facilities, the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process. The Air Force has said that it would like to reduce its base infrastructure even more than the last BRAC round suggested. Levin may prompt another round of BRAC when the dust settles from the 2005 round of closures.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was tapped to run the Senate Appropriations Committee. He voted against the war in Iraq but has not called for the setting of a timetable for US withdrawal, as many of his Democratic colleagues have. Byrd is generally supportive of defense programs, and of the F-22 in particular, because he has been highly successful in steering defense contracts to his constituents. Those funds are generally deducted, however, from overall defense spending through Byrd’s use of earmarks, and he has been personally criticized by outgoing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as making the defense budget harder to manage because of it. The earmarks put Pentagon money into projects the Pentagon “doesn’t need,” Rumsfeld said.

At 89, Byrd is the longest-serving member of the Senate. His advanced age suggests his appropriations chairmanship duties may be shared with ranking Democrat Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who has also struck a strongly bipartisan note in most of his defense oversight.

Inouye, who at 82 is not much younger than Byrd, has complained about what he calls “the B-2 syndrome,” in which cutting the buys of major weapon systems has resulted in unit costs that make those systems prohibitively expensive. Such thinking bodes well for the F-35 program, which is predicated on fast, efficient production to achieve cost savings. Inouye received the Medal of Honor for his World War II service and is generally hawkish.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) was chosen to head the House Armed Services Committee. Like Levin, Skelton, 75, said that he plans to make better Pentagon oversight a cornerstone of his tenure. Skelton, also considered a hawkish Democrat, helped ensure that the B-2 bomber would be based in his state. Skelton said he supports reviving the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, which was instrumental in creating the Goldwater-Nichols military restructuring of 1986. (See “A Better Way to Run a War,” October 2006, p. 36.) House Republicans abolished the committee in 1994.

David R. Obey (D-Wis.) will chair the House Appropriations Committee. Obey, 68, frequently sides with the Government Accountability Office in demanding slowdowns of weapon systems that are not achieving solid results in development and is usually among the first to be loudly critical of any suspected illegalities in government contracting. He has supported the procurement of the F-22, but has criticized the Air Force for wanting to sell it—or any advanced aircraft technology—overseas, arguing that the US wouldn’t have to spend so much on defense if it didn’t create such threats in the first place. (See “Aerospace World: F-22 Exports Debated,” September 2006, p. 20.) Of the main defense oversight committee chairmen, Obey is the least hawkish.

John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) will likely chair the House appropriations defense subcommittee. Murtha, 74, a former marine, made national headlines in 2005 when he called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. He has expressed concern that the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are devouring funds that should be spent on future readiness. He has voiced opposition to a Democratic call to include war operations costs in regular defense appropriations bills (rather than in supplementals), saying such a move would be difficult to manage.

Reining In Directed Energy

The Pentagon’s many and disparate directed energy programs—ranging from pain rays to destructive lasers—are advancing rapidly and have huge potential, but need to be rationalized and probably reduced in number. Foreign powers may also have more directed energy capabilities than is widely known.

That’s the apparent motivation behind the creation of a new Defense Science Board task force on directed energy weapon systems and technology applications, which is to report back to the Pentagon’s top leadership by the end of May. The panel is to be co-chaired by former USAF Chief of Staff retired Gen. Larry D. Welch and Robert J. Hermann, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office. Key staff members of the group are also serving Air Force officers. Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics director Kenneth J. Krieg launched the task force in late October.

In a lengthy memo outlining what he wants from the panel, Krieg noted that directed energy systems may be mature enough for the services “to begin integration into operational forces at all levels of military operations.” The document also hints at the Pentagon’s long-term goals and hopes that directed energy can substitute for some of today’s expensive weapon systems.

Directed energy, or DE, programs are typically thought to encompass technologies such as high-powered microwaves and lasers but also include exotic devices such as particle beam accelerators. The largest unclassified DE program is the Airborne Laser, which has been downscoped from a weapons program to a technology demonstration, at least until it shoots down a tactical ballistic missile next year. (See “The Airborne Laser Narrows Its Beam,” December 2006, p. 30.)

Krieg noted that the military departments are pursuing DE for “a wide variety” of uses.

“Interest has grown in the operational use of DE technology for mission areas such as airborne- and ground-based precision attack, missile defense, expeditionary installation defense, homeland critical infrastructure defense, and nonlethal applications,” Krieg wrote.

While DE systems offer “unique opportunities” to improve capabilities, the same systems or those with “equal or greater lethality” may soon be available to US adversaries, Krieg asserted.

Thus, Krieg wants the task force to conduct a comprehensive review of all the “surface, sub-surface, air, and space DE programs” and identify any that are “duplicative and/or redundant.” The panel is to consider three other documents in doing so: a 2004 Pentagon strategic study of DE programs, the Office of the Secretary of Defense “DE Roadmap,” and the net assessment of DE programs made by the director of defense research and engineering.

Krieg asked the panel to review the state of the art in DE technology, as it can be applied to weapons both tactical and strategic, and to say how these potentials can be exploited. It is to determine “what remains to be done to ‘weaponize’ DE systems and technologies,” as well as what would be needed to support them in a combat theater. He asked the group to think about concepts of operation and what issues the use of DE weapons would raise with regard to “legal, treaty, and policy compliance.”

Michael W. Wynne, Secretary of the Air Force, said last fall that he sees great potential for nonlethal DE weapons, but worries that the US will suffer in world opinion if the technologies are not first employed in domestic US law enforcement before being used in foreign combat.

Krieg also tasked the group to determine “vulnerabilities and capability gaps” should DE weapons be used “by state and non-state actors” against US personnel, systems, installations, or weapon platforms.

Beyond presenting a comprehensive review of the DE situation, Krieg wants the panel to make a series of recommendations. Specifically, he wants the group to suggest research into areas of DE weaponization that are now being neglected. The panel is to say what impact DE might have on future military operations, as compared with today’s “kinetic and electronic systems,” and the potential strategic advantages of DE weapons “with regards to the delivery of precision effects, decreased collateral damage, limiting unintended effects, and decreasing post-combat reconstitution costs and efforts.”

The panel is also to say whether the US defense industry is up to the task of developing a new generation of DE weapons; suggest roadmaps for their inclusion into forces; say how systems and forces could be hardened or protected against DE effects; suggest legal, treaty, or policy action that would remove constraints on US DE weapons; and suggest “the optimum way forward to fuse DE efforts within the department and outside organizations.”

But in wrapping up his wish list for the task force, Krieg mentioned the dollar angle, asking it to set DE priorities for the Pentagon “to preclude unnecessary expenditure of human and fiscal resources.”