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What to Watch in 2010

UPDATED: Veteran Pentagon Watcher Predicts Budget Gridlock if Gates Leaves And GOP Wins House and Heritage Analyst Comments

The defense world can be incredibly frustrating to cover. For the most part there is relatively little real change from year to year except in factors beyond the military's control. So the military tends to adopt a worst case approach to the world and try to come up with solutions that fit a wide range of problems. That creates its own snafus, since systems like FCS or Future Imagery Architecture end up costing way too much and doing few things well. The military's greatest successes are usually found in developing systems that do one or two things really well -- think the Jeep, the Abrams tank, the boomer fleet, the A-10 Warthog.

With that in mind, we humbly offer a few events and trends to watch over the next two years, since one year is far too short in the defense world, as any budget weenie can tell you. What to watch: Gates on his way out the door; the November elections; the struggle in Af-Pak; the intelligence wars.

First, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will probably leave. The rumors have been that he would leave just before the next budget is announced, allowing his successor the freedom to focus on operations and not get lambasted by Congress for what is sure to be a fairly painful budget proposal. Of course, there were rumors rampant several times that that Rumsfeld fellow was on his way out -- including from the National Security Council -- and they didn't come to fruitiion for years...

One source with years of experience in the Pentagon noted that the president has much to thank Gates for. "Gates shows no immediate signs of leaving, and the still-skeletal leadership in both the DoD and the services continues to struggle. The prospect of significant Congressional losses for the President's party in November poses a new risk to an early Gates departure -- the risk that Republicans will reclaim leadership of the national security issue. A Gates departure will likely to filled with a figure more closely identified with the President (e.g. Jack Reed). A half measure such as Chuck Hagel won't work. The President's budget and defense program/policies will be trashed on the Hill without Gates. Obama may go to Gates with a tin cup and a tambourine begging him to stay on, at least through November."

If Gates does leave, expect his signature focus on immediate operational needs -- not strategic systems -- to remain intact. A few factors make this almost inevitable. First, we must stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan enough that we can drawdown both our financial and human financial commitments to them. That means lots of MATVs, Reapers, ammunition, and various ISR platforms. It also means reset costs will remain high, so there will be little budgetary wiggle room for new systems such as the KC-X tanker or long-range bomber. They may get initial funding, but the focus will remain on the tools to fight with today.

Congress will continue -- whether the GOP wins control of the House in the November elections or not -- to shove money into the defense budget. After all, it's their constitutional right. And there is something of a dance between the legistlative and executive branches. The White House knows that Congressman X will fund weapon Y, regardless of what they do about it. That gives the executive branch some budget trade space and the ability to criticize the HIll for being porkers while still getting everything they want plus a little bit. If the GOP does win the House, watch for the pork criticism to get really heated since the GOP will want to flex its muscles and show the country they know how to deliver on defense.

Our source with Pentagon experience predicts a House GOP victory would lead to, "the sort of defense program/budget gridlock (CRs and supplementals will become the main vehicles for addressing defense policy/program issues between the branches) we had in the last two years of the Clinton administration, or to a lesser extent, the last two years of the Reagan administration."

Mackenzie Eaglen, defense anlalyst at the Heritage Foundation, notes that this upcoming budget will essentially "be the first full Congressional debate on President Obama's defense priorities given that it will provide come with an expected and overdue White House National Security Strategy, a completed budget request, FYDP, long-term shipbuilding and aviation plans, and the QDR and NPR. All of these long-term strategic documents will generally influence major defense decisions over the next two years regardless of whether Secretary Gates stays or goes."

One of the hottest battles outside of Af-Pak and Yemen will be the trench warfare between the intelligence agencies over who missed that Nigerian fellow and let him live, let alone, get on an airplane with a valid visa headed to the United States.

It seems as if the chronic disconnect between the strategic intelligence gatherers and the tactical folks remains unbridged. The National Security Agency had crucial intercepts ready and translated. The CIA had warnings from one of Nigeria's richest and most respected men that his son posed a direct threat to the West. Britain cancelled his visa and barred him from entry. The US? The Department of Homeland Security (which oversees immigration with the State Department) left his multiple entry visa untouched and failed to do anything substantive beyond putting him on a list to which nobody pays much attention because it includes a substantial portion of the Muslim world.

Perhaps Congress, which is culpable for having left itself unreformed in how it deals with homeland security, will finally wake up and slash the number of committees with oversight responsiblity for DHS. DHS was a crucial weak link in this, but most to blame must be the National Counterterrrorism Center. It is supposed to be the locus of all intelligence fusion efforts across the government. The data existed to make a reasoned and intelligent assessment of the risk posed by the Nigerian but it was not fused and so he almost killed 330 some people.

The experienced Pentagon watcher believes "there is a bigger question of what responsibilities are prudent to leave with DHS. Senator Leahy's reluctance to 'militarize' cyber security has left DHS with the primary responsibility for cyber security of US information networks -- a task it is not remotely able to undertake. Ditto, protecting the nation against clandestine WMD. A wholesale realignment of DHS capabilities may come out of a review."

Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Armed Sercvices Committee -- no unthinking critic of the intelligence community or of the military -- sent a very public signal on Dec. 31 of his deep unease. "Today, Congressional staff received an inter-agency briefing on the Christmas Day event that left me with more questions than answers. I understand that there were failures across the government and the international community that quite frankly, eight years after the attacks on 9-11, should not have happened," Rep. Ike Skelton said in a letter to President Obama.

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