Why the Heat Is on Robert Gates Over the Pentagon's Big-Ticket Weapons

The defense secretary faces a budget showdown over some of the Pentagon's most expensive systems.

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Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates invited freshman members of Congress over to the Pentagon for a meeting. At one point during the visit, a congressman wondered aloud whether it was possible that the Pentagon was so focused on two counterinsurgency wars that it wasn't preparing for more conventional battles.

Gates "bristled" at this notion, according to Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, and answered that he was well aware of the need to maintain strategic deterrence against big powers while fighting wars on two fronts. Gates then made what many considered to be a striking remark. He pointed out, by Coffman's account, that the considerable job of assembling a defense budget that balances these demands might be easier if members of Congress didn't have a list of weapons systems manufactured in their districts "always" at the ready "in their back pockets."

The exchange offers some insight into the upcoming budget showdown between the Pentagon and Congress. President Obama made it clear in his prime-time press conference yesterday that changing the way the Pentagon buys its expensive weapons systems will be one key way to cut the deficit "by a couple trillion dollars." To that end, the administration is pressing the Defense Department, historically no enemy of bloated weapons systems, to make cuts in programs that carry big costs into future years. At the same time, as Gates pointed out, lawmakers often fight these cuts (sometimes for programs that eventhe Pentagon says it doesn't need) to keep jobs in their districts. Now, some big-ticket items are on the chopping block. This includes the Air Force's prized F-22 advanced fighter jet, which has more than a few friends on Capitol Hill.

In a sign of how much of a front-burner issue defense spending has become, Gates's team put out word earlier this monththat he will skip a NATO summit in April, where allies are slated to discuss critical issues in Afghanistan, to concentrate on his budget battles at home. "Given the fact that the U.S. will be well represented, the work that still has to be done back here on what is arguably probably one of the most challenging budget reviews that has taken place in a number of years, he just felt that it's best that he remain here and work on that," said Bryan Whitman, a DOD spokesman.

It is such a sensitive process that Gates asked participants in the Pentagon process, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to sign confidentiality agreements. That's in large part because he is preparing to take on some powerful lobbying forces. Defense contractors have in turn been buying ads and hiring consultants to write opinion pieces for major newspapers touting various weapons systems.

With the economy in tatters, Gates has asked Congress to set aside its parochial interests, insisting that no program is off limits for serious cuts or even elimination. Such comments tend to create no small measure of anxiety on Capitol Hill. Defense contractors take care to spread production of expensive weapons systems widely throughout a number of congressional districts, often providing scarce jobs in struggling local economies. Driven by these considerations, no fewer than 44 senators signed a letter to President Obama last month extolling the virtues of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. Critics have charged that the Pentagon plane is ridiculously expensive and has not proved as useful as manufacturer Lockheed Martin had advertised. Gates offered his own critique of the aircraft during a hearing earlier this year. "The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," he pointed out.

The recent letter from Congress, however, warned of "layoffs" if production shuts down. It noted that manufacturing the plane "provides over $12 billion of [annual] economic activity to the national economy."

Budget analysts are closely watching the F-22's fate as a crucial barometer of the new administration's approach to money matters. The Air Force is arguing that the stealth fighter, which is invisible to most radar systems, is vital for a number of reasons. Chief among them, it says, is that it is the only aircraft capable of penetrating Iranian airspace without being detected. Currently, 183 fighters have been built or are under construction. With the cost more than $300 million per fighter, however—roughly three times the originally projected cost—the Air Force has backed off its original request for 200 more of them. A senior Air Force officer privately says that officials "would be happy with" an additional 40 to 60 fighters.