What Gates Plans to Do Before He Leaves Office?

Robert Gates works alone in his Pentagon office on August 10. Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

Last May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to the Eisenhower library in Abilene, Kans., and praised the 34th president for keeping the lid on defense spending during the 1950s. Eisenhower himself, Gates noted, "was a low-maintenance leader of simple tastes, modest demands, and small entourages—in stark contrast to what often happens at the upper levels of power in Washington and in other elite settings."

Abilene is a long way from America's centers of power, and Gates's speeches shun headline-grabbing rhetoric, so what the defense secretary said did not get a lot of notice. But back in Washington, and at military commands around the world, four-star generals and admirals should have been paying attention. The word going around the Pentagon was that Gates was targeting the pampered lifestyles of the top brass. Asked about this by NEWSWEEK, Gates laughed. "As an old Soviet analyst, I read the speeches of their leaders very, very carefully," he said. "And people should read my speeches very carefully." He pointed to another speech, delivered in early August. "There is something in there about examining the rank structure and the phrase 'and the accouterments that go with it.' "

Gates himself is an unflashy, unremarkable-looking man. He lives in one of three houses in a military enclave in Washington, residing there mostly alone because Becky, his wife of 43 years, prefers to stay at their house on the west coast of Washington state. (She has had her fill of the nation's capital and knows she'd never see her husband anyway.) The secretary of defense does his own laundry, shopping, and cooking, and waters the flowers outside his house. Most evenings, he writes letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The other two houses in the compound are occupied by four-star officers, and Gates has been known to raise an eyebrow at their platoons of personal staff rushing about.

Gates grumbles about perks and posh quarters—generally defended by senior officers as a reward for decades of stressful family moves every couple of years—but those are not his real targets. The defense secretary's deeper complaint is about what he calls "brass creep." Roughly translated, it means having generals do what colonels are perfectly capable of doing. Generals require huge staffs and command structures: three-star generals serving four-stars, two-stars serving three, each tended by squadrons of colonels and majors. This sort of elaborate hierarchy may have been called for in Napoleon's day, but in an era of instant communication, Gates thinks the military could benefit from a much flatter, leaner management structure.

These entourages are symbolic of a military leadership that, in the view of its civilian leader, is suffering from an inflated sense of entitlement and a distorted sense of priorities. If Gates has his way, the top brass will have to shed old habits and adjust to leaner times. Some of them will become civilians. The number of generals and admirals has increased by more than a hundred since 9/11, to 969 (and counting Reserves, roughly 1,300). Gates plans a first cut of at least 50. He intends to disband an entire headquarters, the Joint Forces Command, created after the Cold War with the noble aim of making the different armed forces work better together, but which has grown into a $250 million-a-year, 6,000-strong operation of questionable usefulness.

Gates does not have the bluster or panache of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. His two heroes are Eisenhower, the Allied commander at D-Day, and Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff in World War II, a stern and reticent figure who once said, "I have no feelings, except those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall." Portraits of the two generals hang behind Gates's Pentagon desk. After a 27-year government career in the shadows at the White House and the CIA—he was deputy national-security adviser and then CIA director during the George H.W. Bush administration—Gates does not feel the need to strut. But that does not mean he lacks force or ambition. Indeed, as he turns 67 this month, serving in his final government post, he appears to be embarked on a kind of last crusade.

After 9/11, U.S. military spending more than doubled. President Obama has vowed to cut back—to only 1 percent growth a year. Deeper cuts appear inevitable. Gates sees the need to turn off "the spigot of money"; he also sees it as an opportunity. In his speech at the Eisenhower library, he noted that Ike understood that real security lay in a strong economy. Having been Army chief of staff after Marshall, Eisenhower knew the Pentagon and how to tame its appetites, but few presidents since have been so wise or lucky. In conversation with NEWSWEEK, Gates was frank about the challenge he faces in forcing what Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex" to adjust to the new budget realities. Since 9/11, "what little discipline existed in the Defense Department when it came to spending has gone completely out the window," he says. He is measured but scathing in his judgment: "I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies, military and civilian alike, have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown overreliant on contractors, and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost."

When Gates was first called to the Pentagon in late 2006 by President George W. Bush, he spent 15-hour days trying (with some success) to salvage an Iraq War on the brink of disaster. He found that the military was at war but that the Pentagon was not. The needs of the young men and women slogging around Iraq and Afghanistan took a distant second place to the service hierarchies' plans for future conflicts—which usually involved expensive new high-tech weapons systems. Gates found his calling. He would fight the military establishment's preoccupation with "next-waritis," as he calls it, to see that the young people in combat got what they needed. (Last week what they needed included a phone call by Gates to a fanatical pastor in Florida who was threatening to burn Qurans and, in doing so, inviting violence against Americans stationed abroad.)

Asked by President Obama to stay on as defense secretary, he did not hesitate. In 10 hectic weeks in early 2009—with everyone involved sworn to secrecy to prevent leaks to Congress—Gates drew up a hit list of big-ticket weapons to be chopped in favor of programs that were less glamorous but more useful. He scrapped far-out missile-defense schemes and gave priority to near-term alternatives. He ended production of the F-22, the Air Force's next-generation fighter, and also tried to cancel its C-17 transport aircraft—while pouring new money into drones. He stopped production of the Navy's futuristic DDG-1000 destroyer and postponed its CG(X) cruiser while increasing the purchase of Littoral Combat Ships, useful for in-shore operations that are far more likely to engage the Navy than a full-scale sea battle (last fought in World War II). Demonstrating that no program was sacrosanct, he canceled the replacement for Marine One, the presidential helicopter. The new craft was so over-designed that, Gates says, "it was a billion-dollar helicopter in which the president could cook up a meal during a nuclear attack."

In all, Gates cut or eliminated 20 high-profile weapons, averting by DOD reckoning some $330 billion in future spending. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, he seemed surprised that Congress agreed to the cuts. "The amazing thing is how almost nobody thought I would win those fights," he said. "Damn right. I'd have bet against myself."

He lost some battles. Congress insisted on buying more C-17 transport planes, and on funding a second engine manufacturer for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Gates will try again to kill both this year. He is closemouthed on the specifics of other cuts, but in San Francisco recently he strongly hinted, to an audience composed mostly of Marine Corps veterans, that he is aiming at one of the Marines' most cherished programs, a high-speed assault craft for amphibious landings. The so-called Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, Gates observed, would have to be loaded from troop ships up to 60 miles out to sea, thanks to the proliferation of long-range, high-accuracy anti-ship missiles. (The Marines launched their last amphibious invasion in Korea in 1950.)

Now that Obama has lost his political clout, his defense secretary needs to think hard about how to handle Congress. Many lawmakers, as the saying goes, confuse warfare with welfare. Weapons factories and military bases mean jobs back home. Already, the senators from Virginia are squawking that doing away with the Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, will harm national security (it won't, but it will cost several thousand jobs).

Gates is also looking to cut the Pentagon's civilian bureaucracy, which has added a thousand new staff since 9/11. Around the time of the attacks, Rumsfeld reckoned that 17 layers of officialdom lay between him and a line officer. A recent internal study, Gates says, found that "in some cases the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers." (In 1948, when the Cold War began, the secretary of defense had a deputy and a staff of three supervising 50 employees; today, he has 26 political appointees running a staff of 3,000.) The outcome, says Gates, is "a bureaucracy which has the fine motor skills of a dinosaur."

On issue after issue—especially when it was a question of swift support for the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan—Gates says he found the process to be "sclerotic." He told Ashton Carter, one of his top officials, "I know of no other way of doing this than doing it myself." That in itself was eye-opening. "First of all, it was the wounded-warrior problem at Walter Reed," Gates recalls. "These kids were coming back in larger and larger numbers, terribly wounded. And the doctors and nurses performed miracles; they were all terrific. But once these kids became outpatients, they were thrown into the maw of the Pentagon bureaucracy. It was just business as usual." Failing to sort that out cost the then-Army secretary, Francis Harvey, his job.

Rumsfeld raged, but, in six years, fired only one senior official. Gates, in less than four years, has fired at least 14 senior officers or officials, including a chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; two service secretaries; an Air Force chief of staff; and the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. He sometimes fires people for simply not doing a good job, "unheard-of in government service," he wryly notes.

In the spring of 2007, Gates read a newspaper story about the Marines using mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs. Gates was impressed to learn that the MRAPs had sustained 300 attacks without a single lost Marine. The secretary of defense inquired, "Why is the Army not doing this?" The response, says Gates, was that the MRAP "wasn't part of the Army's program, and if they spent money to get the MRAPs then they might have to sacrifice something else that they were going to get 10 years from now, maybe. And that just made me crazy." So he intervened: "We had zero MRAP all--terrain vehicles in Afghanistan in January '09. Now we have over 5,000."

Gates became unusually exercised when he recalled his efforts to make sure soldiers wounded on the battlefield in Afghanistan were evacuated in what doctors call "the golden hour"—the time when the badly wounded may be saved if they can get to a doctor. "The standard for medical evacuation [from the battlefield] in Iraq was an hour," says Gates. "Everybody had to be 'medevaced' within an hour. But Afghanistan is a lot tougher terrain. And so it came to my attention that they had settled on two hours. And I said: 'Bulls--t. It's going to be the same in Afghanistan as in Iraq.' And the medical guys, the medical bureaucracy, pushed back on me and said: 'No, no, it really doesn't matter.' And I said: 'Well, if I'm a soldier and I'm going out on patrol, it matters to me.' And so we sent a bunch of new helicopters, three new field hospitals, a whole bunch of stuff. And so now we have the 'golden hour' in Afghanistan.

"It took pressure from me to make all these things happen," he says. Nobody but the secretary can compel different parts of the vast military machine to work together: the medevac problem concerned ground forces; the Air Force had the helicopters to solve it; but the Army couldn't make that happen. "People didn't want to disturb the programs that they already had," says Gates. "They didn't want to think outside of the box. I think there've been some real improvements, but we've still got a ways to go, in my view."

In his quest for savings, Gates faces reflexive pushback from the political right, which condemns any cut in a weapons system as a gain for a prospective adversary like China. Gates inquires, sardonically, "Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?" He takes issue with the left, too. Although he finds it "bizarre" that the Pentagon has as many musicians in military bands as the State Department has diplomats, he parts company with those who want to cut military spending and pull back from U.S. commitments abroad.

He's no dove. His first shot at directorship of the CIA was buried in the fallout from the Iran-contra affair. Some of the agency's Soviet analysts also testified he had slanted their findings to satisfy the hawkish views of the Reagan administration; Gates denied this. Looking to the future, he sees America being dependent on foreign oil for a long time to come, and having global economic interests to protect in "a very dangerous world."

Part of what Gates is doing is preemptive. His deepest fear is that budget politics will gut the military. "I've been very sensitive for a long time to the repeated pattern, during economic hard times or after a war, of the United States' essentially unilaterally disarming," he says. To fund armed forces that, for the most part, he doesn't want to shrink, and to pay for future weapons platforms—versatile ones like the Littoral Combat Ship, revolutionary ones like drones—Gates needs to slash $100 billion or more from the Pentagon's overhead in the next five years. ("Overhead" means all the infrastructure—people, bases, programs—that isn't directly involved in combat.) Recently, he was in San Diego aboard a destroyer, the USS Higgins, when a sailor asked him where these savings would go. "If it works the way I want it to, you get the money," Gates responded. He has done a deal with the White House. Whatever the forces save in cuts from their "tail," they can keep to spend on their "teeth"—the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who are on the front lines, in the air wings, and in the fleet.

He thinks he can persuade Congress to go along. But he concedes that he faces some very tricky political issues. Four-stars are not the only members of the military to enjoy costly perks. Leaving aside the costs of treating wounded warriors—Gates calls that "a sacred obligation"—health-care spending on the military and their families has doubled (in constant dollars) over the last decade. Yet the premiums that military families pay for coverage remain ridiculously low because Congress balks at raising them. (The fraction of the overall bills covered by premiums has dropped from 37 percent to 9 percent since 1999). Health-care costs, Gates says, are "eating the Defense Department alive." But the issue is a political third rail.

Gates sees no option but to tackle tough issues if the U.S. military is to be preserved at anything close to its current size. "It is not a great mystery what needs to change," he says. "What it takes is the political will and willingness—as Eisenhower had—to make hard choices." Gates will likely serve as defense secretary only for another year or so; he seems determined to force those choices.

Watching Gates on his recent trip to California, it was obvious that his commitment is personal. He came back into government from a stint as a university president. "I spent four and a half years at Texas A&M watching 18- to 25-year-olds walk around campus in flip-flops and shorts and T shirts, wearing backpacks and having fun going to class. And then, in an instant, I was watching kids exactly the same age in full body armor in Iraq and Afghanistan." Gates rarely shows emotion, but he routinely chokes up whenever a passage in one of his speeches refers to kids going off to war. In San Diego, addressing a parade of young Marines who had just finished boot camp, he said, "I feel a deep responsibility to each of you, as if you were my own sons."

At Naval Special Warfare Command on Coronado Island in San Diego harbor, Gates, wearing his habitual dark suit, clambered down a sand berm to greet 67 exhausted young men who had made it through "Hell Week," an early ordeal in their qualifying to become Navy SEALs (180 had begun the course). They had not slept more than five hours—total—in five days, and they were filthy, a "bacterial mess," cautioned one instructor. Gates walked down the lines, shaking hands with all of them. Some instructors could be seen discreetly cleaning their hands with antiseptic wipes. Gates did not wipe his hands.