WASHINGTON, June 23, 2011 — When he first took office, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had no intention of changing the culture of the Defense Department. He was focused almost exclusively on the war in Iraq.
During his two years with the Bush administration, he did tee up “broader issues that needed to be addressed by my successor, and punted those to my successor,” Gates recalled. But he found himself on the receiving end of those punts, he said, when President Barack Obama asked him to stay on as defense secretary.
“The major, more dramatic steps that I took during the first term that went after the institution were really to just try and get things to the troops,” Gates said.
This started with the wounded warrior issue at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and then the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles needed to protect deployed troops from roadside bombs. He also pushed to improve battlefield medical evacuation and to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities into the combat theater.
“But I became increasingly frustrated during that period with the inability to get any of those things done within the usual organization,” the secretary said. He began thinking about what needed to be fixed, how to build more agility in the system, how to make people more realistic, and how to impose more discipline in what the department buys.
“So that really teed up the agenda, once I was given renewed lease to begin tackling these broader issues,” he said.
So he went after the culture in the Pentagon, particularly the part of it that developed over 10 years of having an open checkbook.
“I knew it was going to slam shut, because we already in 2008 were in economic crisis, and it seemed evident to me that there were going to be pressures on the defense budget,” Gates said. “It seemed to me that in order to preserve the money for current needs and future modernization, we had to be very disciplined about looking at the programs that we had.”
Again, it began with questions: Are these programs working? Did they have any prospect of working? Did the original concept of how to use them make sense any longer? Could they be sustained?
“That led to the 33 initiatives in April 2009,” the secretary said. “Next, it was, how can we begin to reduce overhead and be more disciplined in our spending to ensure that the tooth part of the Pentagon got the 2 to 3 percent real growth that it absolutely requires?”
When Obama handed down direction for the Pentagon to find $400 billion in savings over 12 years, it caused further soul searching in the building. Gates wants these cuts done very specifically with the realization by all parties that “salami cutting” — percentage cuts across all activities — would mean hollowing out the force.
Gates ordered a comprehensive review of the department to find these cuts in the least damaging way. He said that any cuts involve tradeoffs between acceptable risks and defense capabilities that could be sacrificed.
“I am determined that we will not repeat what we did in the 1970s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1990s, which is across-the-board cuts that end up hollowing out the force,” he said.
Changing the culture continued by creating a new process for input from the services and combatant commanders, Gates said. He moved away from a semiannual meeting of defense leaders to more frequent discussions.
“The combatant commanders believed their concerns were not paid attention to by the services,” he said. “The key here was to bring the team together and get on the same page with the senior civilians and all the senior military leadership — not just the chiefs, but the combatant commanders — so all had an understanding of what we had to do and why we had to do it.”
Their regular involvement in the process changed the dynamic inside the building, the secretary said. “They had input into the process regularly,” he said, “and I think that’s one of the reasons the internal discipline was so extraordinary during this period.”
It was highly unusual when Gates had all senior leaders involved in fiscal discussions sign nondisclosure agreements in the spring of 2009. “But the truth is I never had to have them sign them after that,” he said. “They understood that we were all in this together, but they being involved in the process and knowing they had a way to make their views heard contributed.
“If there has been a cultural change,” he added, “it has been the internal cohesion across the services and between the uniforms and the civilians as we move this forward that is really quite profound.”
Accountability is another hallmark of Gates’ tenure in the Pentagon. When conditions for wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center shocked America, Gates relieved the Army secretary, the Army surgeon general and the hospital commander. When an Air Force B‑52 mistakenly carried nuclear weapons from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., he relieved the Air Force secretary and chief of staff.
“It’s pretty rare anywhere in Washington for someone at a senior level to be held accountable and to be held responsible, because they rarely lost their jobs,” the secretary said. “It certainly got everybody’s attention at a senior level.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
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