Shadow Government

Gates takes on the bureaucracy

On Sept. 10, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld declared war on the Pentagon bureaucracy, which he considered to be both bloated and unresponsive to the anticipated requirements of the twenty-first century. The following day, Rumsfeld was forced to shift his attention to the consequences of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and within ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Sept. 10, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld declared war on the Pentagon bureaucracy, which he considered to be both bloated and unresponsive to the anticipated requirements of the twenty-first century. The following day, Rumsfeld was forced to shift his attention to the consequences of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and within weeks the secretary of defense had been transformed into the secretary of war. During his six years in office, Rumsfeld strove mightily to change — or as he put it, "transform" — the Defense Department, but the demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq circumscribed his efforts.

Now Robert Gates has taken up the reformist cudgel, and has done so with a vengeance. His attack on the Pentagon’s culture of excess is the most sweeping in decades and it is nothing short of breathtaking.

Gates is taking aim at contractors performing work that should be carried out by civil servants, proposing to reduce the number of contractors by 10 percent for each of the next three years. He will freeze civilian hiring — a reversal of his one-year-old "insourcing" policy — so as to put an end to the bureaucracy’s practice of replacing contractors on a one-for-one basis, often by hiring the very same contractor personnel. He plans to reduce both the number of senior executives — including political appointees — and of flag and general officers until in aggregate he has scaled back by half the increases that have taken place in the past decade.

The secretary is targeting organizations as well as personnel. He will eliminate the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), whose contractors outnumber its own staff; two offices that focused on enterprise information technology and related hardware issues, the Networks and Information Integration Office and its military counterpart, the J-6; and finally the relatively new Business Transformation Agency, which was meant to promote best business practices and efficiencies but developed into yet another Pentagon bureaucracy.

Gates recognizes that these and other changes will not take place without resistance — not only from civilian and military bureaucrats but also from the Congress. An unhappy Virginia delegation whose state is already slated to lose an aircraft carrier to Florida and now, by virtue of JFCOM’s planned demise, could lose thousands of jobs in the Norfolk area, could well be the locus of Capitol Hill opposition to the Secretary’s plans.

But Gates is desperate to preserve the DoD’s "topline," which he recognizes will come under tremendous pressure as the administration is forced to confront the ballooning deficit and national debt. He hopes to maintain real defense growth at 2-3 percent, and proposes to justify those increases by demonstrating that the DOD is serious about spending taxpayer money efficiently. He will be lucky to realize half as much, however, especially if interest rates rise and the cost of servicing the debt rises commensurately.

Gates has called for several reports relating to his program that will be delivered later this year, many before the upcoming Congressional elections. Whether this most powerful of secretaries, who has not hesitated to dismiss two service secretaries and a chief of staff, will remain in his E-ring office beyond then is an open question. The success of his reform program may well hinge on whether he does.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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