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The end of the Gates era


Over the arc of its history -- which is not that long, in the scheme of things -- the Defense Department tends not to change very much. It grows and spends and tends to get the things it wants, eventually, despite the occasional speed bumps thrown up by the people who run it. Louis Johnson scrapped the aircraft carrier USS United States, but the Navy soon got its big flattops. Robert McNamara tried to force the Air Force and Navy to accept a compromise neither really loved in the F-111 Aardvark, but both services eventually got the fighters they really wanted. No earthly power could stop the military-industrial-legislative complex from acquiring the V-22 Osprey. Etc.

And yet Robert Gates will wind up his tenure as having been one of the most successful secretaries of defense at forcing his will on the thousand-tentacled clockwork octopus we call the Pentagon. His biggest foil was the Air Force: He fired its top leadership after the service grew lax in its nuclear mission and pushed back too hard against the unglamorous UAVs Gates wanted for Iraq and Afghanistan. When he wanted to extol the virtues of air power, Gates flew onto an aircraft carrier. He lopped off the F-22 program, a symbol of traditional fighter pilot Aim-Highism if there ever was one, and, lest we forget, he cut the Air Force's beloved next generation bomber -- before eventually bringing it back.

The other services didn't get off easy, either: The Army had to give up its dreams of vast tinker-toy battlefields where a UAV that looks like a shop-vac can beam HD video to a soldier's wristwatch. The Navy lost the huge futuristic cruiser that was becoming the ultimate fantasy for surface warfare officers. And the Marines, of course, had to give up their dear high-speed swimming APC, a living emblem of their legendary exploits. The Gates era, from the perspective of the services, cost each of them a fundamental piece of its identity, as Gates forced them to take their eyes off the stars and put them back onto the battlefield. Now, the Air Force can't buy enough little robot airplanes to fly racetracks over the desert; the Army can't buy enough new trucks to keep its soldiers safe; and the Navy can't stop reminding everyone how many sailors it has serving on the ground in the Middle East, not out on those silly ships at sea.

With the end of Gates' tenure now only weeks away, the biggest question is: Did it take? Will it last? Gates himself recognized the Pentagon's tendency to fall back into familiar ways; he warned as much in his speech to the Air Force Academy in March:

"This country requires all the capabilities we have in the services -- yes, I mean carriers, tac-air, tanks, and amphibious assault -- but the way we use them in the 21st Century will almost certainly not be the way they were used in the 20th Century. Above all, the services must not return to the last century’s mindset after Iraq and Afghanistan, but prepare and plan for a very different world than we all left in 2001."

Gates forced the Air Force to accept a new type of warfare that was abhorrent to its traditional pilot-centric culture. Will the UAV become a long-term part of the way it does business? How much will the Navy resist the long-term plan to lower the requirement for aircraft carriers over the coming decades? And will the Army really go along with Gates' planned reduction in end strength when the time comes?

Gates won't be around -- few secretaries of defense are in office long enough to see many decisions pay off. But the services will be.

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