Gates to continue Rumsfeld-style transformation

Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates shares Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of military transformation, centered around a lighter, more mobile force that uses technology. Also, the nominee will continue DOD’s financial system and pay reforms and examine the role of contractors serving the government.

At today’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gates avoided most questions on DOD management while senators praised his record and tried to elicit his views on Iraq strategy.

But in a 65-page questionnaire released at the hearing, Gates provided insight into his plans for solving some of DOD’s biggest problems, which include modernizing the force during wartime, dealing with an increasingly constrained budget environment, and reforming the way the department spends money and manages people.

“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. “I am also committed to the continuing changes in the business process that the department has implemented to support that force.”

Among those changes, Gates pledged to review DOD’s workforce strategy and examine the department’s increasing reliance on service contractors. “I believe there is a valid concern about the appropriate roles of contractors in providing governmental functions,” he said.

Gates expressed support for DOD’s move to reform civil service rules toward a more performance-based pay approach. He will continue to implement DOD’s National Security Personnel System, despite a recent U.S. District Court decision that stated the system denies workers collective bargaining rights.

Gates will also review the need to create a new position for a deputy secretary of defense for management, he said.

Senators at the hearing told Gates that the military faces unprecedented low levels of readiness and soaring costs of program commitments. Gates told the lawmakers he will study those issues upon taking office.

But in the questionnaire, Gates said he will not reshape budget plans that DOD submitted for the president’s fiscal 2008 request, due out in February.

“I understand that the budget process is near completion… If we conclude that there should be revisions to the budget, we will work with the Congress toward that end,” Gates wrote.

Gates said he was unaware of the details surrounding recent news reports that the Army refused to submit its budget as required in August. He agreed with Congress’s direction to fund known costs for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the normal, not supplementary, budget request.

In response to the committee’s questions on defense acquisitions reform and weapons systems growth, Gates said he was not familiar with the details of those problems and would study them upon taking office.

Gates also expressed support for large technology programs, such as ballistic missile defense and space defense. He will review the program requirements and timing of the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter programs, he said.

Experts say the confirmation hearings process has devolved in recent years to a show, where political posturing among senators prevents them from demanding substantive answers to difficult questions.

“Today’s senators don’t know how to ask questions – not even in those rare cases when they decide to do so,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.

The Pentagon cannot account for $3.8 trillion of money spent and has severe management problems, Winslow said.

“We already know from 12 years of experience from Republican control on this committee that one of Congress’s most important duties – oversight – has been deeply interred,” Wheeler said.

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