Gates Details Efforts to Change Pentagon Culture

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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