Every few days, something about former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, soon to be nominated for sainthood, flows into my in box. The latest is some bumph from Drew University where Gates is lauded as the “soldier’s secretary” and a lot of blah, blah, blah proving that Gates has fully transformed into the Warren Buffett of national security, the nation’s grandpa with wit and wisdom about Washington; and, despite seemingly no political ambition … auditioner to be Mitt Romney’s vice president?
The Gates legacy as Secretary still remains unclear. After Rumsfeld, of course, one couldn’t help but label him the soldier’s man; Rumsfeld was such a cold and indifferent taskmaster. Gates also became Secretary at a time when others had already solved the Iraq conundrum, and when the dollars were still flowing freely.
Gates’ record does include his decision to cap the F-22 fighter buy against Air Force objections, his decision to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and his other ‘efficiencies,’ and his embrace of irregular warfare and counter-insurgency as the everything of the future.
I’m an agnostic on the F-22, but I don’t agree with the old Gates’ line that the airplane was worthless because it wasn’t doing anything for the troops on the ground right at that moment in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Gates’ decision to side with the Army over control of unmanned drones that fly above 3,500 feet and his support of efforts – in the name of jointness — to make everyone in the Air Force and Navy battlefield helpers was short-sighted, demonstrating the kind of courage of breaking eggs to make a Washington omelet but hardly being a designer of a larger menu.
The decision to eliminate JFCOM particularly will go down as short-sighted, IMHO: Jointness in the U.S. military is in name only and has not reached any working-level where the military no longer needs an advocate for it – Gate’s basic position. If anything, under Gates, we’ve just seen a continuation of the proliferation of un-jointness, with institutions beyond the Army, Navy, and Air Force obtaining quasi-service status and working in their own self-interested bubbles: special operations forces, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) – a virtual Army in itself, Cyber Command (the first combatant command of the intelligence community), homeland “defense” (a post-9/11 perpetual resource suck); even the National Guard, which has now lobbied successfully for full joint privileges.
This is not the man who ‘beat the Pentagon bureaucracy,’ and I remain surprised at how many Pentagon reporters and national security analysts can be so convinced merely because he was such a pleasant vacation from Grumsfeld.
Meanwhile, Gates never really did anything about contractors – let’s track them better was his initiative, especially after in-sourcing went nowhere – and Mr. Strategic vision, the former CIA analyst – seemed oblivious to the Obama administration’s do-anything-to-get-us-out-of-the-Middle-East pivot to Asia. Also, by every account, Gates as Secretary had nothing to say in the early Obama period about Afghanistan that was useful, contributing mightily to leaving behind the same mess there.
Gates’ is labeled an airpower skeptic because of his supposed courageous decisions, but in reality he was little more than a traditionalist pro-Army-dominant, pro-boots-on-the-ground power broker who went with the institution that had the power. I admit to being an airpower fan, but not a fan of the Air Force, which conflates a non-boots-on-the-ground future with its institutional interests. Slogging it out Korean War style or even, one village/hill/tribe at a time in Afghanistan in a manpower intensive military is not the future, but nor is the war on terrorism myopic head hunting ISR war.
The future is something that fully leverages the cyber domain and the qualities of air and space power – the global reach, the ability to compress time so that it isn’t equal to distance, the non-kinetic elements of military defeat – but this is not, I repeat not, anywhere close to what today’s Air Force really is, nor could be. I say could be because if U.S. defense is going to be defined by the ability to either defend against or defeat China, we certainly aren’t going to do it with boots; or F-22s and a new bomber.
So Gates, what’s his gig? Washington is filled with smart people, in fact, Washington is filled with smart people who make a living telling us how hopeless Washington is. But as for the future of U.S. national security? I just don’t see the Gates’ era as exceptional, nor any trend that he put in place that changes the everyman for himself culture.