Gates' Iraq focus could impede modernization at DOD

Defense Secretary is handed the challenge of balancing current and future priorities

When Robert Gates is sworn in Dec. 18 as the 22nd defense secretary, he will inherit a department facing unprecedented challenges at home and abroad. President Bush nominated Gates to chart a new course for the Iraq strategy, but his accession will affect all parts of the Defense Department as it struggles to transform itself amid increasing budget pressures.

Gates has revealed little information on how he plans to manage DOD, but defense experts and others agree that he will need to balance future priorities against current ones while building a consensus inside the military and satisfying new congressional leaders.

In the areas of transformation, civil service reform and business systems modernization, Gates has signaled his intention to continue on the course set by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which means transforming the military into lighter, mobile forces that rely on information and communications technology.

“Transformation holds the promise to ensure that our military forces are more agile and lethal when confronting the enemies of this new century,” he wrote in a 65-page questionnaire for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But in his congressional testimony, Gates deflected questions from both sides of the aisle on how he would deal with DOD’s financial management problems.

Gates also told Congress he will allow DOD’s fiscal 2008 budget process to continue as is. He said he will abide by Congress’ direction to fund known costs of the war through the regular budget rather than supplemental budget requests.

That message contradicts an Oct. 25 memo, in which Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England directed the military services to include all potential costs of the “longer war on terror” in the upcoming 2007 supplemental request.

Modernization programs are being cannibalized to pay for the unanticipated costs of current operations, which is a dangerous trend, analysts say. The Army’s recently submitted six-year budget proposal slashes funding for the Future Combat Systems program and ends the Army’s Land Warrior program, for example.

“We’re eating our seed corn,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. Large programs in development are necessary to prepare for the next war, and they have strong constituencies within the defense community, he said.

IT is crucial to the war effort and should survive relatively unscathed, but large technology programs such as the Joint Tactical Radio System are more at risk, Suss said.

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